…Botswana’s northeastern neighbor, Zimbabwe, suffers from stereotypical African repression and poverty. As the story goes, after overthrowing minority white colonial rule (either violently or non-violently), an indigenous strongman (sometimes democratically, sometimes with the help of the military) wins power, promising (or not) to operate in solidarity with the poor. Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe since 1980, follows this African pattern: after ousting Ian Smith’s white power government, he initially culled the support and favor of his former masters. Since the mid-eighties, however, Mugabe’s personality-driven dictatorship has turned increasingly violent, repressive and racist. As a result, he and his cronies have razed Africa’s breadbasket, leaving behind nothing but the charred remains of a fiefdom in which only his loyal and corrupt supporters have access to food, fuel and foreign currency.
Michael, a twenty-year old Shona speaker from Harare, repeated much of this to me the other night. After having dug toilet pits to earn enough money to come to Botswana, ($15,000,000 Zimbabwean dollars, or about twenty bucks in US money), Michael arrived in Gaborone on Sunday with only the number of his uncle, a local builder. When he couldn’t get in touch with his uncle, Michael had nowhere to turn but the church. He arrived on our doorstep Sunday morning with a single bag of clothes and documents, telling in broken but intelligent English his story and why he would risk being put in jail for working illegally in Botswana rather than return to Zimbabwe. “The situation in Zim… is tight,” he repeated. “Mugabe does not have heart for the people.”
Indeed. Zimbabwe has yet to exorcise the worst of its political demons, as South Africa has done. Botswana, happily, seems never to have had any. But the borders between it and its neighbors, thin and porous, ensure that the Batswana must work hard to ignore people like George and Michael – bloodied, desperate reminders of what makes Botswana so different.