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Relations with China Top Botswana's Priority

Relations between Botswana and China, which have grown by leaps and bounds since establishment of diplomatic relations in 1975, is a top priority of the Botswana government according to Mompati Merafhe, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and now Vice-president of Botswana under Ian Khama.

Relationships between the two countries go well beyond the diplomatic. Chinese investments in Botswana, both in government-sponsored projects and private-sector projects, are on the rise, and direct trade in 2007 stood at $115.8 million. Chinese expertise in technology and manufacture is a welcome addition to the Botswana government's efforts, and the strength of the relationship between China and Botswana can be seen through numerous high-level government exchange visits that facilitate the face-to-face contact so important in today's global economy.Botswana is committed to enhancing this cooperative relationship through the implementation of the Follow-up Action of the Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation.

In an exclusive interview with then Minister Merafhe, International Outlook discussed bilateral relations and cooperation between China and Botswana, the importance of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation of 2006, and the investment climate between China and Botswana.

Minister Merafhe, how would you define Botswana's relationship with China? How have you cooperated in the past? 

Botswana's relationship with China has always been deep and strong, based as it is on sincere friendship, mutual respect and trust, and mutual benefit and equality. As a rapidly and successfully emerging nation, China has shown great interest in the wealth of natural resources and favorable investment climate that our stable government and increasingly sophisticated infrastructure has to offer. Our needs and interests complement each other well.

To keep the Chinese informed of the increasing opportunities within Botswana, the Ministry has promoted a number of high-level delegations between Botswana and China. We hosted the Chinese Vice-premier Huang Ju in 2005 and Mr. Wu Guangzheng, Member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China in September 2006. Mr. Li Zhaoxing, Chinese Foreign Minister, and Mr. Wang Jun, Vice Minister of the General Administration of Sports, visited Botswana in January and August 2007, respectively.  

Botswana's first three presidents, Seretse Khama, Kutume Masire, and Festus Mogae all paid visits to China. In fact, former President Mogae attended the Beijing Summit of the Forum on China Africa Cooperation in November 2006. In 2007, Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi, Minister of Communications, Science and Technology; Phandu Skelemani, Minister of Justice, Defence and Security; Moeng Pheto, Minister of Youth, Sport and Culture; and Tebogo Masire, Commander of the Botswana Defence Force, all made visits to China.

Out of the Forum on China-African Cooperation grew a commitment to action, and currently we are looking into areas where our two countries can cooperate to our best mutual advantage. For example, although the Chinese are very eager to purchase raw materials, we ourselves really want to complete finishing on our products here in Botswana before exporting them. This will add value to our exports and create jobs in Botswana. We feel this is an area in which the Chinese can assist us.

Do you believe that the Chinese are interested in setting up businesses and manufacturing facilities in Botswana as well as purely importing and exporting? 

Absolutely! In the past decades, the Chinese companies in the private sector have been predominantly shop owners providing automobile parts, construction materials, equipment, and clothing. Indeed, several investors helped build up a substantial textile industry as evidenced by two firms, Caratex and TouchRoad Textiles. We appreciate that because it provides jobs for our citizens. Also, about 20 private Chinese construction companies in Botswana are among the largest providers of jobs (along with 10 state-run companies). These Chinese companies have not only made a huge contribution to the building of Botswana's infrastructure but they have also helped us control escalation of prices. They are very competitive on price.

Recently the Chinese have become involved in more large-scale investments, such as the cement plant in Mahalapye near the power station and the huge float glass production plant that will be a joint venture between the Botswana Development Corporation (BDC) and some of China's private companies. The Chinese are also looking into tourism infrastructure development such as a potential five-star hotel. They are also very keen about other investments in mining and mineral exploration. In addition, there may well be a role for China to play in the liberalization of some state-run enterprises, such as Botswana Telecommunications Corporation (BTC) and the National Development Bank (NDB), perhaps through the Public Enterprises Evaluation and Privatisation Agency (PEEPA). These are the sorts of investments that we are promoting in Botswana because they bring in management, financial capital, technological skills, and most importantly job opportunities for our citizens.

There is a lot of talk about Chinese soft loans to assist African countries in their development. Is Botswana receiving loans and how have they been used? 

In the past, China has provided us with soft loans for infrastructure projects; some of these include the renovation of the Botswana railway, low-cost housing, land survey and planning, road construction, health facilities, agricultural technology, and HR development. At this time, Chinese funding is being used to complete a road from Gaborone into the hinterland that cuts across the Kalahari Desert. Other funds are helping to build a youth center in Gaborone as well as two rural primary schools and a botanical garden.

From an intellectual and education standpoint, we are happy to say that a Confucius Institute now being established at the University of Botswana will offer courses in Chinese language and culture. In issues of health, the Chinese have also been very generous with us; we have had numerous Chinese medical teams working in Botswana on 3-year contracts over more than three decades. Additionally, the Chinese have assisted us in training our own health-care personnel, and they have provided financial assistance for equipment used by hospitals and pharmacies.

What is your personal message to Chinese investors looking at opportunities in Botswana? 

I want the Chinese to know that they are welcome in Botswana. We appreciate that the Chinese are in business just as we are and that they have their own national interests just as we do, and that they must compete with the rest of the world for trade and investments in Africa. We are certainly interested in exploration partnership with them. 

Botswana is easily the most favorable investment destination in Africa. It offers much more than has ever been explored. We have carefully designed and developed a one-stop service station for potential investors at BotswanaExport Development and Investment Authority (BEDIA), where potential investors can get all the services they need, including work and residence permits, access to land holdings, and information about any financial incentives they are entitled to. Botswana has no foreign exchange controls plus a liberal and transparent democracy that is very stable.

Compared to elsewhere in the region, corruption in Botswana is virtually nonexistent. Crime is low, so foreign investors and can live peaceful lives here among us. What's more, we have an educated workforce. Our investment in education is one of the highest on the continent with 26% the national budget allocated towards it. All of these make for a country with great opportunities for successful investment.   

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