Freedom in the World
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Despite some initial obstacles, members of the San (Bushmen) community began returning to the Central Kgalagadi Game Reserve (CKGR) in 2007. Their return follows a much-publicized 2006 high court ruling that the government had wrongfully evicted them from the CKGR. Also in 2007, civil society activists and the political opposition criticized a proposed Intelligence and Security Services Bill, saying it lacked parliamentary oversight provisions and would undermine due process.
Elected governments, all led by the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), have ruled the country since it gained independence from Britain in 1966. Vice President Festus Mogae, a former central bank chief, rose to the presidency when longtime president Ketumile Masire retired in 1998, and he was confirmed as the country’s leader in 1999. The ruling BDP won by a wide majority in legislative elections that year. Polling was deemed free and fair, although the BDP enjoyed preferential access to state-run media.
The BDP firmly defeated a fractured opposition in October 2004 legislative elections, taking 44 of the 57 contested seats in the National Assembly and securing Mogae a second term in office. The main opposition party, the Botswana National Front (BNF), won 12 seats, while the Botswana Congress Party (BCP) won a single seat. International observers declared polling free and fair but recommended measures to strengthen the democratic process, including giving the opposition equal access to state-run media and setting the date for elections well in advance.
In 2002, a suit brought by 243 members of the San ethnic group, also known as Bushmen, challenged a 1997 government decision to evict them from their lands in the Central Kgalagadi Game Reserve (CKGR) and relocate them to nearby settlements. In 2006, a three-judge panel of the high court in Lobaste issued a long-awaited ruling in favor of the San, judging them wrongly evicted from the CKGR and ordering the government to allow them to return. Despite initially being denied access, some of the evicted San began returning to the CKGR in January 2007. San advocates and the government continue to argue about how many San will be allowed to live in the reserve.
More than 37 percent of Botswana’s population is infected with HIV, and the UN Children’s Fund estimates that AIDS has created more than 120,000 orphans in the country. The government has taken a pioneering regional role in combating the pandemic, offering free antiretroviral drugs and introducing routine HIV testing in all public health facilities. The latter policy has drawn objections from civil libertarians, who are concerned that Batswana are not adequately informed before being tested and that their privacy rights are open to abuse. In August 2007, the government mandated that all pilots and air traffic controllers must be regularly tested for HIV.
Economic progress in Botswana has been built on sound fiscal management and low rates of corruption, and privatization is progressing slowly. Efforts are under way to diversify the economy, which relies on the diamond and cattle industries. Nevertheless, the unemployment rate is an estimated 40 percent.
Botswana is an electoral democracy. The 63-seat National Assembly, elected for five years, chooses the president to serve a concurrent five-year term; despite being elected indirectly, the president holds significant power. Of the Assembly’s 63 members, 57 are directly elected, 4 are nominated by the president and approved by the Assembly, and 2—the president and attorney general—are ex-officio members.
The 15-member House of Chiefs, which serves primarily as an advisory body to the National Assembly and the government, represents the country’s eight major Setswana-speaking tribes and some smaller ones. Groups outside the eight major tribes tend to be marginalized from the political process; under the Territories Act, land in ethnic territory is distributed under the jurisdiction of majority groups. A lack of representation in the House of Chiefs has allowed the imposition of patriarchal Tswana customary law on minority groups, which often have different rules for inheritance, marriage, and succession.
The BDP has dominated politics in Botswana since independence. Neither its majority in the National Assembly nor its control of the presidency has ever faced a serious challenge. Opposition parties, namely the BCP and the BNF, have accused the government of effectively institutionalizing the BDP’s dominant status. Nevertheless, the Independent Election Commission, created in 1996, has helped consolidate Botswana’s reputation for fairness in voting. President Festus Mogae has said that he will not serve a full five-year term and plans to hand over the presidency to his appointed vice president, Seretse Ian Khama, in 2008—a year before the next elections. Some analysts and opposition politicians have argued that this practice of “automatic succession” reduces presidential accountability to the electorate.
After a series of corruption scandals involving BDP leaders, the government passed a bill in 1994 that set up an anticorruption body with special powers for investigation, arrest, and search and seizure; the resulting conviction rate has been more than 80 percent. Botswana was ranked 38 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index and has had the best rank among African countries for several years running.
A free and vigorous press thrives in cities and towns, and political debate is open and lively. Several independent newspapers and magazines are published in the capital. However, the government dominates the broadcast media, which reach far more residents than the print media, and provides inadequate access to the opposition and government critics. In addition, the government sometimes censors or otherwise restricts news sources or stories that it finds undesirable. In 2007, the editor of the independent Tswana Times claimed that the state’s Botswana Telecommunications Corporation withdrew advertisements from the paper in retaliation for a critical story.
The private Gaborone Broadcasting Corporation television system and two private radio stations have limited reach, although Botswana easily receives broadcasts from neighboring South Africa. A 2006 draft of the Botswana Broadcasting Bill is under consideration by the National Assembly. The bill includes plans to establish a new community broadcasting sector as well as a public entity to monitor the quality and objectivity of state-owned media. The government does not restrict internet access, though such access is almost absent outside cities. Botswana does not have a freedom of information law, and critics accuse the government of excessive secrecy.
Freedom of religion is guaranteed, but all religious organizations must register with the government.
Academic freedom is generally respected. However, in February 2005, Mogae employed the National Security Act of 1986 to declare Australian-born academic Kenneth Good a “prohibited immigrant” and deport him from Botswana. Good had criticized the government, saying it was run by a small elite and was manipulative of state media.
The government generally respects the freedoms of assembly and association, which are guaranteed by the constitution. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including human rights groups, operate openly without government harassment. The government has barred San rights organizations, including the First People of the Kalahari group, from entering the CKGR, and demonstrations at the reserve have been forcibly dispersed. While independent labor unions are permitted, workers’ rights to strike and bargain collectively are restricted.
The courts are generally considered to be fair and free of direct political interference, although the legal system is affected by staffing shortages and a large backlog of cases. Trials are usually public, and those accused of the most serious violent crimes are provided with public defenders. Civil cases, however, are sometimes tried in customary courts, where defendants have no legal counsel. Trials held under the National Security Act may be conducted in secret.
Authorities have been reported to occasionally use beatings and other forms of abuse to obtain evidence and elicit confessions. Botswana has been criticized by rights groups for continuing to use corporal and capital punishment. In 2007, the government introduced a draft Intelligence and Security Services Bill in the National Assembly. Among other reforms, it would create a Directorate of Intelligence and Security in the office of the president. Civil society organizations and opposition politicians strongly criticized the bill, saying it vested too much power in the director of the new agency—by allowing him to authorize arrests without warrants, for instance—and lacked appropriate mechanisms for parliamentary oversight. Prisons are overcrowded and suffer from poor health conditions, but the government has been making moves to address the problem by building new facilities and providing prisoners with access to HIV testing.
Discrimination against ethnic minorities is a problem. Since 1985, authorities have relocated about 5,000 San to settlements outside the CKGR. Almost all of those remaining, 530 people, left in 2002 when the government cut off water, food, health, and social services. The government insists that the San have been adequately compensated in money and cattle and are provided decent education and health facilities in the new settlements, and it rejects assertions by critics that it simply wanted unrestricted access to diamond reserves in the region. The San tend to be marginalized educationally and do not enjoy the same employment opportunities as more privileged groups.
Illegal immigrants from Zimbabwe face increasing xenophobia and are accused, sometimes legitimately, of criminal activity. These immigrants are subject to exploitation in the labor market. Botswana is building an electric fence along its border with Zimbabwe, ostensibly to control foot-and-mouth disease among livestock, but the barrier is popularly supported as a means of halting illegal immigration. In 2006, some 38,000 Zimbabweans were deported from Botswana. Botswana features a vibrant market economy and was ranked highest among African countries in the Heritage Foundation’s 2007 Index of Economic Freedom.
Women enjoy the same rights as men under the constitution, but customary laws limit their property rights. Women married under traditional laws are deemed legal minors. Progress in improving women’s rights has been slow. However, in 2004, the government enacted the Abolition of Marital Powers Act, establishing equal control of marriage estates and equal custody of children, removing restrictive domicile rules, and setting the minimum marriage age at 18. A May 2007 report by Physicians for Human Rights stated that women’s disempowerment and lack of adequate rights protections perpetuated the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Botswana. Domestic violence is rampant, and trafficking in women and children for purposes of prostitution and labor is a problem. The law prohibits homosexuality.