Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

Identity Management: The Creation of Resource Allocative Criteria in Botswana

Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

Identity Management: The Creation of Resource Allocative Criteria in Botswana

Article excerpt


Botswana's escape from the "resource curse" is an anomaly in the African trend toward low economic growth and political instability in economies heavily skewed toward exports of nonrenewable natural resources. (1) This trend is largely explained through analyses of ethnic fault lines. One idea is that in order to maintain power, political incumbents use natural resource wealth to establish patron-client relationships with members of their ethnic groups. (2) Another is that violent conflicts arise due to grievances about the unequal distribution of resource wealth among ethnic clusters. (3) Botswana is widely cited as an anomaly to this "resource curse" and is branded an "African miracle," a designation it has held since its independence in 1966. (4) Botswana's good institutions, particularly in the private property area, its political leadership's choice of sound policies, and its elite's motivation to reinforce strong institutions have led to its relative economic success in the face of resource abundance. (5) Many allude that without the discovery of diamonds, it is unlikely that Botswana would have been able to prosper to the extent it did. (6) One key reason cited for the Botswana miracle is its relatively high level of homogeneity. (7) The general view is that because more than 80 percent of the population speaks Setswana, the country is homogenous. (8) This view is further compounded by the fact that the country's diamond resources have generally benefitted most Botswana citizens. (9) This assumption is misguided, however, because the notion of ethnic homogeneity in Botswana is superficial at best.

The present article challenges the basic explanation that views Botswana as primordially homogeneous under the umbrella of "Tswana" and attributes this as a primary reason behind Botswana's escape from the "resource curse." Instead, this article contends that Botswana's purported ethnic homogeneity was the result of a combination of political strategies of the instrumentalist kind on the part of elite political entrepreneurs in the various phases of Botswana's history establishing a social hierarchy of identity that engendered the notion of "Tswanadom." Tswanadom here refers to both the product and the process that saw the political, economic, and social ascendancy of the Tswana identity in Botswana. Tswanadom, the paper argues, became central to the post-colonial assimilationist objective of unifying Botswana into a homogenous political, social, cultural, and geographic national entity. (10) Assimilation here is defined as the process whereby a minority group gradually adapts to the customs and attitudes of the prevailing culture and customs. (11)

Botswana illustrates a case of identity management. Its systematic assimilation to "Tswanadom" transformed Tswana identities and activated new norms within society, albeit at the expense of minority cultures. The extent to which the country is today viewed as homogenous, and the extent to which diamond wealth is viewed as not being based on ethnicity, is largely due to identity management and the construction of ethnic categories emerging from both political engineering and socio-cultural discourses built upon historic mercantile relationships. Although a central tenet of Tswanadom was that resource wealth would not be distributed along ethnic lines, the present paper argues that through its exercise of identity management, Botswana inadvertently established a new mechanism and criterion for resource wealth and allocation of public goods. Today, those whose identities were successfully managed and transformed enjoy the wealth that diamonds have produced, and groups and identities resistant to identity management are largely excluded from the "African miracle."

Ethnic Resource Competition and the Case for Managing Identity

One key reason cited for the relative instability of African counties and their inability to develop economically and politically for the past half century is the colonial legacy that left most states ethnically heterogeneous. …

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