Friday, March 28, 2008

Fortunate sons

Reading one of Alexander McCall Smith's novels in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency brought to mind how important founding fathers can be. The novel's main protagonist, Precious Ramotswe, is fond of quoting Botswana's first president Seretse Khama, whom she regards as an exceptionally wise man. She might compare him to George Washington, if she had ever heard of Washington.
By all reports Khama was, indeed, an exceptionally wise and effective leader. Botswana, almost alone among the newly independent states of Africa from the 1960s has been prosperous and peaceful. In large part this is because Khama invested in education and instilling a tradition of honest, corruption-free government.
It's widely accepted these days that corruption is one of the main factors hindering development in third-world nations, but Khama apparently realized it decades ago. The result is that Botswana has leaped from one of the world's poorest countries to its middle ranks in little more than two generations. It's probably the biggest success story in Africa. It is stable and safe. About the only major problem, albeit a very big one, is the AIDS crisis afflicting more than a third of the adult population.
Botswana's success contrasts starkly with so many African disasters, such as the current one in Zimbabwe, and shows the opportunities lost. It also highlights how important the right leader is at the start.
Usually in governments and societies leaders operate within the structure they inherent. Change is limited and incremental and the result of the interaction between many actors.
But every so often the social and political order starts anew, due to revolution, a war for independence or decolonization. When this happens, the leader at the top makes all the difference. The currents of history rarely bring exceptional leaders to the fore at these times. Its usually some ordinary person and too often a nefarious one.
How different would America have been without George Washington? As a group America's founding fathers were better than average, but even among themselves they recognized that Washington was the only indispensable man. As vital as his leadership was during the Revolution, it was as president he performed his most lasting service. There were many generals who could have won the war, but only he had the sense of duty, honor and uncommon good sense to be its first president.
Despite his flaws and the flaws of his country, can there be any doubt that Nelson Mandela was an indispensable man in the history of South Africa? Against all expectations he led his country through as delicate a transition as ever seen in history.
Every nation faces its own challenges, and while Khame may not have faced difficulties quite as steep as Mandela's or Washington's, the track record of Africa's other independence leaders shows that his success was clearly against long odds.
So Botswana is clearly a land of fortunate sons (and daughters) to have had such a founding father.

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