The current issue of the Art + Performance Quarterly contains a piece about my year in a hotel room in the capital of Botswana, a country in southern Africa. (A good part of that time was spent re-watching Rob Lowe's Oxford Blues.) Many in the United States do not know this, but Botswana is actually not a poor country. It is categorized by the World Bank as a middle-income one. China, Brazil, and Portugal are also classified in this way. Indeed, at the time I lived in Botswana, in the late 1980s, it had a larger foreign reserve than South Africa, the third-richest country in Africa. More impressive yet, it had a population of only 1.4 million people.
How did Botswana achieve this economic success? My mother, who was a university lecturer, attributed it to a deep and tribal democratic tradition that Tswanas call kgotla. Because Zimbabwe, for example, doesn't have such a tradition, its experiment with European-style democracy easily and utterly failed. But Botswana does, and so it was able to adopt and maintain an authentic parliamentary system. I never agreed with this idea because it conflated democracy with capitalism. Indeed, what the Tswana's kgotla made clear is that democracy is much, much older than state-supported and protected "free enterprise."
In my view of the matter, the country's success had less to do with politics than with one resource that the British somehow missed during its 86-year occupation of the country: diamonds. They are to Botswana what vibranium is to Wakanda, a fictional country in the film, Black Panther, that has generated more revenue than a number of real life African countries.
A huge diamond deposit was discovered in Botswana after it achieved independence in 1966. (This is one of the themes in the movie A United Kingdom.) As a consequence, the black African government got to deal directly with a white-owned corporation, De Beers Group of Companies, for mining rights. But the country seriously fucked up its first contract.
As American economist Joseph Stiglitz explains in his book Globalization and Its Discontents: "Shortly after independence, [De Beers] paid Botswana $20 million for a diamond concession in 1969, which reportedly returned $60 million in profits a year. In other words, the payback period was [just] four months[!]" Botswana realized its mistake and demanded a renegotiation of the contract. De Beers said no and accused the country of being greedy. That's where things stood—the government watching all of this precious money leave its poor country—until a second large diamond mine was discovered. At that point, De Beers returned to the table and gave Botswana a much better deal.
What connects Botswana's diamonds to Wakanda's vibranium is this: The resource was hidden from Western eyes. For example, had the British seen the diamonds, and not just the desert, the cattle, and the black people, it's hard to believe that the country's independence would have been so peaceful and its economy a success. Wakanda, on the other hand, deliberately hides its wealth, vibranium, from white eyes by looking like a poor African nation. (I call this kind of economic strategy hiddenism.) Indeed, to Western eyes, the country looks very much like Botswana did before the diamonds were discovered in 1966.