The 1980s: President Sir Ketumile Masire
Masire’s succession was mandated by another victory for the BDP in a general election to the national assembly in 1984 – although at the same time they lost control of all the town councils except Selebi-Phikwe. This sign of discontent was widely ascribed to the high levels of unemployment.
Just as the 1970s had witnessed upheavals in Rhodesia, so the 1980s saw the intensification of pressure on the white regime in South Africa to give way to majority rule.
Botswana continued to welcome refugees, but refused to harbour bases for the ANC’s war on apartheid in South Africa. During this period Botswana had a delicate balancing act to play. Like most countries it was calling for the end to apartheid, and geographically it was one of the ‘front line’ states in the battle against apartheid. However, Botswana’s economy was so dependent on its southern neighbour that it couldn’t afford to apply the sanctions which most countries were calling for.
In 1981 tensions arose with South Africa over the supply of military equipment from the USSR for the Botswana Defence Force (BDF), though by 1986 Britain and the USA were offering hardware to the BDF to deter South African incursions into Botswana.
Meanwhile on its eastern border, relations with Robert Mugabe’s ZANU government were business-like rather then terribly friendly. The early 1980s saw Mugabe’s notoriously ruthless Fifth Brigade terrorising Matabeleland – the province adjacent to Botswana. Zimbabwean refugees flooded into Botswana including, in March 1983, the leader of ZAPU, Mugabe’s opposition in the elections, Joshua Nkomo.
Nkomo left for London rapidly, but later allegations that the refugee camps were harbouring armed dissidents caused problems, culminating in a border skirmish in 1983 between the BDF and ‘armed men wearing Zimbabwean military uniforms.’ It wasn’t until April 1989 that Botswana felt able to revoke the ‘refugee’ status for Zimbabwean nationals and, soon after, the refugees left – although Botswana continued to have many illegal migrants from Zimbabwe.
Internally, political tensions between the BDP and the BNF peaked in early 1987 with a referendum on constitutional amendments to the electoral system, which was boycotted by the BNF. However, by October 1989, the BDP demonstrated its substantial support by winning 65% of the votes in an election. (The result of which was again challenged by the BNF in several constituencies.) In October the new national assembly returned Masire to the president’s office for a third term.
During this time there were several incursions into Botswana by South African troops – including two raids on alleged ANC offices in Gaborone in 1985 and 1986. But a few years later, tensions began to ease as South Africa’s President De Klerk started to set his country on a course for majority rule. One of his first steps was independence for Namibia in 1990.