What Capitalism Did to Botswana

By Rick Kelo

We are going to look at two neighboring nations: Zimbabwe & Botswana.  One adopted Marxism, the other adopted capitalism and nearly unrestricted free trade.

Exploitation! or Capital Accumulation?

First though, the word “Africa” is synonymous with poverty.  Ever wondered why?  Sub-Saharan Africa is poor because they have less capital per person than richer nations.  That’s the definition of a poor nation.  In the word’s of famed economist Ludwig von Mises:

There is but one means available to improve the material conditions of mankind: to accelerate the growth of capital accumulated as against the growth in population. The greater the amount of capital invested per head of the worker, the more and the better goods can be produced and consumed. This is what capitalism, the much abused profit system, has brought about and brings about daily anew.
~ Ludwig von Mises, The Anti-Capitalist Mentality, p. 10

In sub-Saharan Africa the process of capital accumulation seems to not work because socialism and Marxism swept across most of the continent during the Cold War.

When asked why Africa is poor the class warfare types have a standard answer: Africa is exploited by rich, non-African nations!  This socialist/communist “rich exploitation” mindset is actually the cause of Africa’s poverty, and is keeping much of the region in poverty.

(Plus, the facts are firmly against that foreign exploitation notion anyway since almost all the capital being accumulated in the sub-Saharan African nations today came from their trade with other nations in the first place).

The cause of the persistent poverty in this region of the world is easy, and I’m going to use Zimbabwe as an example.  Below is Zimbabwe’s declining GDP per capita since their Marxist president, Mugabe, came into power in 1980.

Zimbabwe's GDP per Capita Since Mugabe Took Office

Zimbabwe’s GDP per Capita Since Mugabe Took Office


In 1980 Botswana (their neighbor) was just as poor as Zimbabwe:

Zimbabwe vs. Botswana GDP/Capita 1975-1985

Zimbabwe vs. Botswana GDP/Capita 1975-1985


NOW, take a look at the economies of Botswana vs. Zimbabwe today:

GDP per Capita = Capitalist Prosperity In Botswana vs Socialist Poverty in Zimbabwe

GDP per Capita = Capitalist Prosperity In Botswana vs Socialist Poverty in Zimbabwe

How did two countries start in the same place and finish in such different places!  Let’s see:

Zimbabwe, Marxism & Seizing the Means of Production

What socialism fails to realize is that stealing assets ensures poverty.  That is why you have never, on the face of this earth, seen any nation become rich through socialism.  However, socialists claim they will solve the boom/bust cycles of capitalism in order to help the poor,  but as we’re about to see their methods only ensure poverty.

The methods of Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe:

“socio-economic system … which is planned and operated by those who are chosen by the people… as far as our own program is concerned, we are for a socialist society, you see.”
(Source: PBS interview)

After the last election Mugabe announced that Zimbabwe is tired of being exploited!  In typical socialist & Marxist fashion Mugabe announced that the proletariat of Zimbabwe were no longer going to be oppressed by the rich (mainly white) bourgeois!

His party is calling this policy “indiginization.”  If Zimbabwe is to reduce the control of the rich and empower the people, then all stocks on the Zimbabwe stock market must have 51% of their shares taken (without pay of course) for the benefit of the people of Zimbabwe.  In 2000 Mugabe did something similar and seized the land of the richest farmers (also without compensation) because they were too rich.  “How can Zimbabwe say we are an independent country when our resources are controlled by others?” (referring to white land and business owners). Mugabe’s party spokesman asked.  Mugabe is taking his cue straight from the the great book itself:

Yes, gentlemen, the Commune intended to abolish that class property which makes the labor of the many the wealth of the few. It aimed at the expropriation of the expropriators. It wanted to make individual property a truth by transforming the means of production, land, and capital, now chiefly the means of enslaving and exploiting labor, into mere instruments of free and associated labor.
~ The Communist Manifesto

When Zimbabwe went through its earlier Marxist – “we hate the capitalists!” – moment back in 2000 they seized land, today it is socializing the ownership of all the businesses.  The 2000 farm seizure went against property rights (the very core tenet of liberalism and of free market capitalism), and it had consequences.  It lowered production, which lowered tax revenues, which caused the government to have to print money.  By 7 years later they were into inflation so bad people were using $100 million dollar bills to buy groceries.

That is the effect of Marxist action against the means of production: in the name of fighting inequality you attack the only thing in the economy that produces output, employment, and is growing.  The effect of this: Zimbabwe’s GDP shrunk every year from the farm seizures until 2009.  How’s that for a recession?

Zimbabwe's Fall in GDP After the 2000 Land Seizures

Zimbabwe’s Fall in GDP After the 2000 Land Seizures

Botswana, Capitalism & High Quality of Life

Bordering Zimbabwe to the west is Botswana who took a, thankfully, very different approach to their socialist neighbor.  That is why today they have one of the highest qualities of life in the Africa and Zimbabwe has one of the lowest.  Botswana adopted total free trade and total, unregulated, laissez-faire capitalism.  By doing so new businesses began to appear.  Zimbabwe has taken the opposite approach and, by attacking the small amount of remaining wealth, created a climate where you’d have to be insane to open up a business.   

Growth from Free trade: Botswana has overall mostly free trade.  This has caused a booming export industry to grow up in the last 30 years.  Botwana’s economic freedom has attracted a lot of foreign investment into the country.  Remember where we started at the opening of the article?  The only method to improve the quality of life of the common citizen is to increase the amount of capital in a country per head of population  There is no other method, and this is exactly what capitalism has done in Botswana.  Today foreign assets account for 66% of all total bank assets in the country.  This foreign investment that has helped fuel growth and amplify the growth from the free enterprise / free market system.

Growth from Free Market Capitalism: The growth laissez-faire capitalism has caused in Botswana is seen in the new sectors in the economy that didn’t exist even in 1980.  According to Botswana’s Central Statistics Office mining has been largely unchanged, and today makes up 26% of Botswana’s economy compared to 25% in 1980.  Manufacturing is also unchanged making up 4% of the economy.  The change has been the rise of modern industries that have sprung up due to the capitalist economic freedom the country enjoys.  Those growth industries include: trade, hotels, banking, insurance, telecom, transportation, construction, and utilities.  Manufacturing & mining haven’t increased much, or, to coin the phrase used by authors who object to jobs created by capitalism: these are not “bad”, “low paying” “wage slave” jobs.

Growth from Responsible Government:  At a time when Americans consider why we have no economic growth we might want to compare ourselves to Botswana.  The country has:

  • Kept national debt under 10% of GDP (the US is presently 105% of GDP)
  • Kept annual budget deficits to 2% of GDP (the US deficit is 6.6% of GDP)
  • Have nearly no barriers to free trade (the US government controls every aspect of trade)
  • A federal income tax top bracket of 25% (the US is presently 39.6%)
  • Corporate tax rates are either 5%, 15% or 25% (the US is presently 35%)
  • Equipment imported into Botswana for use in business is tax & tariff free
  • Raw materials imported are tax & tariff free (haha, the US even puts a tariff on oil at a time when we are paying $4/gallon at the pump)

The Good News

The good news is Zimbabwe could very easily transform itself from a poor, vacated, socialist dump into a thriving, booming epi-center of Africa.  Neighboring Botswana (where every sane person living in Zimbabwe has long since fled to) has the most capitalistic, freest economy in all of sub-Saharan Africa.  It is also no coincidence that since it adopted those policies it has also had the highest economic growth rate of any nation in the world, even surpassing Hong Kong.  Private sector growth in Botswana has been in the double digits for going on 4 decades!  Also (which is an important point after this week’s indignization announcement in Zimbabwe), Botswana’s Constitution has a provision that expressly protects all private property from government seizure.

To those who are unfamiliar there is a data set called the Penn World Table that tracks worldwide incomes.  Overall the world is become richer and richer in every country in an absolute sense.    The countries who engage in socialist or Marxist methods and deny their people access to the capitalist process of accumulating capital are the only exceptions.  The Penn World Table can be viewed here.

I am going to close you where we began.  And I’m going to again give you a von Mises quote because I happen to like his explanation on this topic more than other economists:

What constitutes the greater wealth of a capitalistic society as against the smaller wealth of a noncapitalistic society is the fact that the available supply of capital goods is greater in the former than in the latter. What has improved the wage earners’ standard of living is the fact that the capital equipment per head of the men eager to earn wages has increased. It is a consequence of this fact that an ever increasing portion of the total amount of usable goods produced goes to the wage earners.

None of the passionate tirades of Marx, Keynes and a host of less well-known authors could show a weak point in the statement that there is only one means to raise wage rates permanently and for the benefit of all those eager to earn wages—namely, to accelerate the increase in capital available as against population. If this be “unjust,” then the blame rests with nature and not with man.
~ Ludwig von Mises, The Anti-Capitalist Mentality, p.58