BOTSWANA CHARTS ITS OWN COURSE

Botswana is rarely in the news, which is good news in a continent where headlines most often speak of suffering.

This week, however, the landlocked Southern African country is briefly in the limelight as it welcomes President Clinton and celebrates the retirement of one of Africa's most respected leaders.The reception of Mr. Clinton in the capital, Gaborone, today will be Sir Ketumile Masire's last official engagement before he voluntarily steps down - 18 months ahead of time - as Botswana's president, a post he has held for 18 years.

His legacy is a country in which Mr. Clinton will find the lowest infant mortality rate, the largest number of homes with access to clean water, a high rate of literacy and, at $2,600, one of the best per capita GDP rates in sub-Saharan Africa (excluding Mauritius). It's also one of the few African nations that regularly posts a budget surplus. When Mr. Clinton arrived in Ghana at the start of his six-nation African tour, he hailed the ''new Africa'' and talked of the benefits of democracy, education, trade and justice. ''Africans are being stirred by new hopes for democracy and peace and prosperity,'' he said.

These are concepts with which Botswana, often cited as a model of African democracy, is already familiar. While Mr. Masire's successor must still deal with problems of wealth distribution, environmental degradation and a reliance on one, finite export commodity - diamonds - the country's achievements are due largely to the stability that the nation of 1.4 million people has enjoyed since independence from Britain in 1966.

Its modern history might have been very different. The British only reluctantly granted independence to the protectorate of Bechuanaland. It narrowly escaped becoming a province of neighboring South Africa, whose British high commissioner was its administrator until 1963. Britain also chose not to operate a liberal racial policy for fear of upsetting the South Africa's apartheid regime.

In a celebrated case in 1950, Britain banished Seretse Khama, heir to the kingdom of Bamangwato, from Bechuanaland when he announced plans to marry an Englishwoman he had met while studying law at Oxford University.

Mr. Khama and his wife lived in exile in Britain for six years before returning home and organizing a political party through which he was elected prime minister in the newly self-governing protectorate in 1965. Following independence, he became president and was knighted by the British.

From the outset of self-rule, Ketumile Masire, now 72, worked closely with Mr. Khama, first as deputy prime minister and then as vice president. It has been said that Mr. Khama provided the leadership, and Mr. Masire, a former high school principal and master farmer, the organization.

When he succeeded Mr. Khama in 1980, Mr. Masire gave Botswana continuity, yet did not cling to power, as others in post-independent Africa have done. Neither has he left his country without a political heir. Deputy President and Finance Minister Festus Mogae, 59, has been preparing for the role since he took office in 1992. On Wednesday he will, as the constitution allows, be inaugurated as president until elections are called in 1999.

Botswana-watchers will be anxious to see if the ideals of democracy and good government are sufficiently enshrined to withstand a change of management.

For the full story: Log In, Register for Free or Subscribe