Articles - July August 2019

Ambassador David Newman Represents

Botswana's Success Story And Its Unique Challenges In Washington
James A. Winship, Ph.D.

Ambassador David Newman is an adoptive son of Africa, a child of the United Kingdom who in the process of building a legal career in southern Africa chose to renounce his British citizenship and become a citizen of Botswana.  “You get Africa in the blood,” he explains.  “It is really a case of choosing to serve the country that I had come to love.” 

Newman’s appointment as Botswana’s 12th Ambassador to the United States in 2015 represents the culmination of a legal and judicial career devoted to developing Botswana’s modern, post-colonial economy and its legal system.  After graduating from the University of London with an LL.B. degree and being admitted as a barrister in London’s Middle Temple, Newman briefly practiced law in London.  Fate and fortune, however, combined to lure him to Africa with the offer of a position teaching law at the University of Malawi.

Though his plan was to return to London after completing his initial 2-year academic appointment, Newman stayed in Malawi for six years teaching law and writing a textbook on criminal procedure and evidence.  The offer of an appointment as senior lecturer in law at the University of Botswana in 1982 led him to Gaborone and soon thereafter to the private practice of law as an attorney and conveyancer, a legal specialist trained in all aspects of property law.  

Subsequently he would become managing partner in Collins Newman & Co. (CNC), a leading Botswanan firm that focused on corporate and commercial law dealing with corporate finance, mining industries and financial exchanges.  The firm describes itself as, “acting for a broad spectrum of financial institutions, multinational and national corporations, and most state enterprises.”  The firm has also served as legal advisor and counsel to the Government of Botswana.

After twenty years of legal practice Newman found himself at what he calls a “watershed” moment in his life.  The Chief Justice of the High Court in Botswana inquired whether he would do a short stint on the bench of the High Court.  “I agreed to do a temporary term on the bench first to see whether the judiciary liked me and I liked it.  If so, I told him, then I will commit to a full term on the bench.  And, that’s precisely what happened.”  A decade on the High Court bench followed.

Today, Ambassador Newman is the diplomatic face of a remarkable African success story and a model of political and economic stability that is too easily taken for granted.  Botswana gained its independence in 1966 and since then has maintained a stable majority-rule democratic government; developed and diversified its economy to reach upper middle income status; responsibly managed its valuable natural resources; worked to meet the challenges posed by its semi-arid environment; met the public health challenge of HIV/AIDS head-on; balanced a once volatile political environment in southern Africa with its own model of interracial harmony; and offered the world remarkable insights into the natural world of Africa’s interior through the development of eco-tourism combined with the protection and preservation of the geographically unique Okavango Delta.

Botswana, because it is small and stable, often gets lost in the midst of Africa’s vastness and its complex political, economic and environmental dilemmas.  But, Botswana has an important story to tell, and Ambassador Newman recounts it most effectively.

Diplomatic Connections:  Having made the transition from legal practice and teaching to the judiciary, how did you then make the transition from the bench to diplomacy?  What have you found are the greatest differences between being on the bench and being in a diplomatic role?

Ambassador Newman:  Let me try to explain it in terms of solitude versus engagement.  Being a judge required me to live a life of solitude.  A judge is present on the bench to hear cases before the court.  Much of the work of the court, however, is done in chambers interacting with judicial colleagues and law clerks. Beyond that a judge doesn’t really interact with people.  There are always concerns about potential conflicts of interest, and the deliberations of the court are very closely held until formal decisions are written and released.

The result is an inevitable isolation.  My personality was actually changing in response to the demands of judicial life, and that was a concern to me.  In a conversation with the Chief Justice, we agreed that after ten years on the court I would step down.  That is exactly how events unfolded.

At that time the then President of Botswana inquired as to my intentions.  My response was that I would be very happy to continue in the public sector in some capacity if my public service could add value.  Lo and behold, that conversation eventuated in me being named Botswana’s Ambassador to the United States.

Diplomatic Connections:  Recently Botswana caught the attention of the entertainment world but also of the public more generally with the film, “A United Kingdom,” that retells the love story between Botswana’s first President, Seretse Khama, and his English born wife, Ruth Williams. They faced great opposition to his return to Bechuanaland (later to become Botswana on independence) because of their inter-racial marriage.  What were the obstacles they faced, and how did they overcome them?

Ambassador Newman:  It was immediately after World War II and at a time when the South African government was establishing its formal apartheid policies.  Seretse Khama went to London to study law.  He was a barrister when he met his future wife and fell in love. The dynamics of the situation were that Bechuanaland, as it was then known, was surrounded by white minority governments – Rhodesia to the north; apartheid South Africa to the south; and Southwest Africa (Namibia) to the west.

When Seretse and Ruth went back to Bechuanaland as a married couple they encountered resistance from within his tribe, where Seretse’s uncle had been serving as long-term Regent in his absence and where tradition expected that the heir to the throne would marry a designated tribal princess.

The South African government of the day also pressured the United Kingdom to take action against this interracial marriage lest it stir unrest in South Africa.  The British government kept Seretse and Ruth in exile in the United Kingdom for over five years.  That is why their eldest son, who later became Botswana’s President, was born in the United Kingdom.

Diplomatic Connections:  It was, in other words, a far more complex political situation than their marriage simply being rejected by tribal tradition or because of race alone.

Ambassador Newman:  When they returned to Bechuanaland the obstacles were effectively overcome because the tribe had accepted the situation and wanted Seretse to come back home and lead them.  Obviously, the South African government was not happy at all, but they were confronted with a fait accompli.

Of course, the condition under which the couple was allowed back was that he would not be involved in politics.  That did not last.  The winds of change and independence from colonial rule were blowing throughout the African continent.

Diplomatic Connections:  Ambassador, you are the only white Ambassador representing an African state in Washington, D.C.  If I can quote your wife, she has noted of Botswana’s experience that: “It’s not just a love story; it’s history.  It is just amazing to feel that Botswana is at the center of what democracy means, what interracial relationships mean, what love means.”  In this current age of heightened nationalism, often a racialized nationalism, what does Botswana’s experience have to teach the world?

Ambassador Newman:  To answer that you have to draw on the traditions of Botswana custom.  This pre-dates any colonial experience at all.  One word particularly comes to mind - botho.  It is difficult to translate directly, but it has to do with living in community.  Roughly it says, “I am because you are.”  It means offering respect to common humanity, our shared humanness.  It was often said that the people of Botswana came to respect Ruth Khama because, as they said, she was “walking the road with them.”  These concepts emphasize the importance of empathy and compassion.

Diplomatic Connections:  Is that part of what attracted you to Botswana?

Ambassador Newman:  I arrived in Botswana 12 years before Mandela’s release in South Africa.  That was still 8 years before Namibia’s independence.  The regional situation in southern Africa was very tense – civil war in Angola; civil war in Mozambique.  Botswana was an oasis surrounded by chaos, conflict and racial separation.

South Africa had said throughout all the apartheid years that, “You cannot have a black majority ruled government.  It will not work.  It cannot work.”  And, yet, here was this country – Botswana – right next door having a black majority ruled government that functioned quite well and peacefully, the very thing that white South African leaders insisted could never work.

Diplomatic Connections:  Could you explain the symbolisms and the philosophy underlying Botswana’s flag and coat of arms?  These symbols of the nation include both the importance of your country’s natural environment and its economic development.

Ambassador Newman:  The flag has an azure blue background with a broad horizontal black stripe paralleled by two narrower white stripes.  Botswana has a semi-arid environment.  The blue of the flag represents water, the most precious of commodities and a critical priority for us.

Diplomatic Connections:  It should be said that the Kalahari Desert represents a significant portion, roughly 70% of your country.

Ambassador Newman:  The black and the white represent racial harmony.  That comes back to how important it was for our first president, Seretse Khama, and our national leadership to be able to show what can be done if diversity is embraced.

Diplomatic Connections:  Your country’s coat of arms has the word "pula" emblazoned across the bottom, and that is also the name of Botswana’s currency.  That word means “rain,” which comes full circle to the importance of water to your country.

Ambassador Newman:  The coat of arms centers on the traditional shield of our people.  Inside the shield are three waves, again representing water.  Above that are three mechanical cogs, representing industry.  The symbolism also includes the long-horned cow, representing the beef industry that is so important to our economy.

Outside the shield and adjoining it is a sorghum plant, representing agriculture, on one side and on the other side, representing tourism, is an elephant tusk.  Further on the outside, framing the shield, there are two zebras, Botswana’s national animal.  They represent our rich wildlife heritage.  But they also represent in black and white the heritage and the harmony of our racial diversity.

The one thing missing from the flag and from the coat of arms is diamonds.  Diamonds had not been discovered in 1966 when we gained independence and when our national symbols were conceptualized.

Diplomatic Connections:  Botswana is landlocked, and it is a semi-arid country.  How does the government seek to deal with those issues of water availability and water quality that are critical to human and animal life but also critical to most industrial operations? 

Ambassador Newman:  Let me correct what I believe is a misnomer.  Think of Botswana as “land-linked,” not landlocked.  For many years we had to be landlocked because we needed to keep outside forces from infiltrating our borders.  But, now, we live in a different setting that enables us to be land-linked.

Diplomatic Connections:  When you say Botswana had to protect against infiltration you are referring both to military or paramilitary forces that threatened your country’s security and intellectual forces that represented a physical and a philosophical threat to Botswana’s stability and its professed values?

Ambassador Newman:  Both of those things.  Today, however, Botswana is cognizant of the dramatically changed circumstances that prevail in the Southern Africa region where majority ruled governments are in power.  To understand the importance of being land-linked, it is necessary to understand just how critical the ideas of regional security and regional economic development are to Botswana. 

Diplomatic Connections:  How is the concept of being land-linked related to water issues?

Ambassador Newman:  Water is a constant concern.  Over 20% of our development budget this year is allocated to improving water supply and water management.  Botswana goes from drought to drought. 

We recognize the necessity of becoming water secure.  That requires us to look at ways of expanding our water supply.

We are working with the United States on identifying partners who might assist us.  Botswana’s Minister of Water and Land Use recently made a tour of the United States looking at water technologies, water treatment, and desalination in California.  Roughly 500 miles away from Botswana, a potential desalination plant on the Atlantic coast of Namibia in Walvis Bay is under consideration. That would require running a pipeline similar to what California has done.  Another long term project might bring water from the Lesotho highlands through South Africa.  Yet another possibility might redirect water from the Zambezi in the north of Botswana.

Diplomatic Connections:  It is usually thought that an Ambassador to the United States serves as liaison to the federal government and its various institutions.  But, there are 50 states out there. Many ambassadors to the United States are doing quite a bit of outreach directly to the states without going through the federal government.  Is that the case for Botswana?

Ambassador Newman:   It is very important.  Fifty U.S. states, effectively for us 50 countries, require substantial investment of time and effort.  Botswana’s population is 2.3 million. Many of the states we deal with have a larger population than we do.  There is more synergy and much more potential for engagement and collaboration when we deal with specific states and even localities.

Diplomatic Connections:  The diamond industry represents an enormous share of your country’s economy.  What difference did the discovery of diamonds make for Botswana?

Ambassador Newman:  The discovery of diamonds transformed Botswana.  Diamonds were officially discovered in 1967.  The economic transformation was almost immediate.

At independence Botswana was one of the poorest countries in the world.  From that point on, for over 40 years until the 2008 global financial crisis, Botswana’s economy grew by over 10 percent annually.  For a period it was the fastest growing economy in the world, albeit from a low base.  We transformed from the lowest of the low income countries at independence to 20 years later being listed as lower middle income.  Twenty years later, roughly 2004, Botswana transitioned from lower middle income to upper middle income.  That is where we are today.  Our objective in Botswana’s Vision 2036 agenda is to attain high income status.  Diamonds have played a critical role in that story.

Diplomatic Connections:  How much of role did De Beers itself play?

Ambassador Newman:  The important thing with diamonds is that in Botswana there was no expertise, not only in 1966 but for many years after that.  De Beers brought us their expertise.  But, the great thing is that DeBeers entered into a 50/50 joint venture with the Botswana government that has endured for 50 years and is still going strong.

That agreement has changed in shape, but it is fundamentally an excellent example of a public/private partnership (PPP) between a government and a private company.  And that is true globally.  You would struggle to find any example of a PPP that has been more effective and more profitable than the agreement between Botswana and De Beers.

This is where Botswana shines at the story’s end.  It is not just the fact that diamonds were discovered and revenue came in. The question is: what happened to that revenue?   It went into the development of the country and the people.  It went into education.  It went into public health.  As, indeed, it does today.  In this year’s budget 2019-2020, 43% of our projected revenue will go into education and public health.  In the past that number has sometimes exceeded 50%.

Diplomatic Connections:  How did Botswana avoid what is sometimes called the “resource curse,” the problem of the revenues from the development of a country’s resources ending up in the hands of a small elite, often including government officials, who become very rich while the development of their country languishes?

Ambassador Newman:  It comes back to the traditions of the Tswana culture.  It boils down to good leadership, strong government and a commitment to build and strengthen the institutions of governance that deliver critical services to the people.  Those intermediary agencies within the government have been valued and carefully nurtured.

Diplomatic Connections:  Will the diamonds run out at some future time?

Ambassador Newman:  We have to recognize that the diamonds quite probably will run out at some point in the future.  Having managed the initial benefits of our diamond riches, Botswana must now begin diversifying the economy to reduce our dependence on mining.

Diplomatic Connections:  What progress is Botswana making to develop the various stages of production that are inherent in the diamond industry as rough stones move through the transformation process that turns them into commercial diamonds of industrial or jewelry grade?

Ambassador Newman:  Diamonds were mined in Botswana, but they were immediately taken back to London where they traded.   In London, the diamonds would be sorted, aggregated by class and quality, and sold.  In turn, the diamonds would go to various places around the world – whether it was Antwerp or Israel or India – where they would be cut, polished and resold.  This was the supply chain through which diamonds moved.  But, Botswana was not benefiting from the processing of the raw stones for the global market. 

That has changed as a result of renegotiating our contracts with De Beers.  We have reached a situation where the diamond trading center is now based in Botswana.  London’s trading center essentially moved to Gaborone.  The diamond sales now happen in Botswana before the stones leave the country.    We now have cutting and polishing factories in Botswana.  We are capturing more of the value added at the various stages of commercial diamond production downstream.  In fact, we now have diamond and jewelry designers in Botswana.  We even have our own specific diamond cut, Tswana cut.

Diplomatic Connections:  Could you tell us about the role of tourism in the economy, notably the safari business?  How has Botswana sought to develop tourism as an industry and, at the same time, to protect the wildlife and habitat that make the safari experience possible?

Ambassador Newman:  Eco-tourism, particularly, is something that Botswana is very proud of.  Botswana was ranked this year as the #1 country globally for conservation, and with good reason.  We have adopted, over a number of years, very sound policies in relation to conservation and sustainability of our natural environment.

Botswana’s Okavango is the third largest river in southern Africa.  The Okavango Delta represents a unique ecosystem, which is now one of the most sought after wilderness destinations in terms of animal life and natural beauty.  It is the largest intact inland delta in the world and offers tourists the opportunity to go deep into Africa’s relatively unspoiled interior.

Diplomatic Connections:  In fact, the U.S. Congress recently passed legislation dealing with the Okavango Delta, did it not?

Ambassador Newman:  There is a new DELTA Act, whose title has a double meaning.  The acronym stands for the “Defending Economic Livelihoods and Threatened Animals Act,” but that also reflects the fact that the bill is named after Botswana’s Okavango Delta.  The bill was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Trump on December 23, 2018.  It deals with Angola, Botswana and Namibia. There is a very close relationship between conservation and tourism embedded in that legislation.  It focuses on sustainable natural resources and wildlife management, protecting migration routes for elephants and other endangered species, combating poaching and trafficking, addressing public health needs and catalyzing economic growth – especially in tourism and the safari business.

Diplomatic Connections:  While preparing for this interview, it was striking to discover that the elephant population of the region has more or less discovered the natural equivalent of political refugee status by migrating into Botswana because they sense that they are safer there than in neighboring countries.  

Ambassador Newman:  That is true.   There are believed to be less than 450,000 remaining elephants on the globe.  Botswana hosts, does not own, roughly 130,000+ of those elephants.  The population varies with time.  Elephants are very bright, and they remember.  Moreover, they seem to be able to pass on information to the next generations.  They know where they are safe, and they know where
they are not safe.

Diplomatic Connections:  Could we talk about the darker side of that coin, meaning poaching and the international ivory trade?  How does that impact the elephant population?  How do you attempt to protect the elephants?

Ambassador Newman:  We endeavor to protect the elephants with all our resources. Our Botswana Defense Force doesn’t protect our borders against infiltrators from other countries coming into do harm to our people or to take over the country.  They are on our borders to protect various wildlife species from poachers.

The situation has been that the poachers will go where they see the least resistance and where they perceive low-hanging fruit.  Botswana has put all our resources – not just our Botswana Defense Force but our police force protects part of the border, our prison guards also provide personnel to help stop poaching.  Many of our agencies work alongside our wildlife rangers to protect and conserve our natural flora and fauna.

Botswana’s resources are overstretched.  We need to work closely with our neighbors to coordinate our efforts to stop poaching by pooling regional financial and human resources.  The U.S. government has been working very closely with us on this through the DELTA Act.  That law is designed to assist with regional efforts, to protect the Okavango watershed, to protect the waters that flow into and create the Okavango Delta, and to create new livelihoods, like eco-tourism, for communities that are impacted.

Diplomatic Connections:  You have had a long career in law, business and diplomacy.  What do you understand today, based on your several careers and your diplomatic experience, that you wish you had understood when you were a young barrister?

Ambassador Newman:  Diplomacy is changing, constantly.  Today economic diplomacy is the focus.  That was not always the case.   In other times the focus has been on security and political issues.  The point is that you must be adaptable to changing circumstances and conditions.

Here in the United States, certainly the agendas and the issues change.   When I brought a delegation to the Department of Energy in late 2016, the DOE staff only wanted to talk about renewable energy.  Two years later, after the Trump administration had taken office, that same department now wanted to know about Botswana’s fossil fuels.  We have a lot of coal in Botswana.  So, instead of talking about the sunlight that we have, and we do have a lot of that, they were now interested in the fact that Botswana is estimated to have the greatest reserves of coal on the African continent.

Diplomats must adapt.  You can be dealing with the same people, but under different circumstances they are speaking a different language.  They are focused on different concerns.  Diplomatically, you have to change your strategy if you are to have any possibility of achieving what you hope to accomplish for your country.

Diplomatic Connections:  This has been a fascinating and revealing conversation.  Thank you for your time, your thoughtful responses, and for the obvious appreciation – dare we say love – you demonstrate for your adopted country, which is your home.

Ambassador Newman:  Pula!  (Literally this Setswana word means “rain” but that transmutes to connote “wealth” or “blessings.”  This is also the cheer that goes up when a Botswana team scores a goal.  The same term is shouted at political rallies.  Here it serves as a benediction on the conversation.)

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