That Botswana has been one of the most stable countries on the African continent for decades has much to do with the resilience of its people and the country’s political leadership. And among its greatest leaders was Sir Seretse Khama.
Seretse Khama was born on 1 July 1921 at Serowe, Bechuanaland (now Botswana). His grandfather was Kgosi (King) Khama III, known as Khama the Good, the ruler of the Bangwato people. Under his rule and with his approval, Bechuanaland had been put under British protection in the 19th century. Seretse’s name means ‘the clay that binds’, and referred to the reconciliation after a rift between his father and grandfather. In 1925 Seretse Khama succeeded his father to the throne, but his uncle Tshekedi Khama became the new four-year-old Kgosi’s regent and guardian.
Seretse was sent to South Africa for his education, and in 1944 he graduated with a BA degree from Fort Hare University College. He then left to further his studies in law in England, first at Balliol College, Oxford, then at Inner Temple, London. In 1947 he met Ruth Williams, the daughter of a retired army officer. She had been a WAAF ambulance driver during World War II and was now working as a clerk at Lloyds.
They were married in September 1948. Seretse’s Uncle Tshekedi ordered him to come home so that he could rebuke him for his marriage to a white woman. He wanted Seretse to get a divorce, but Seretse managed to win the people’s favour. He was recognised as Kgosi, and Ruth as his wife.
South Africa was not prepared to accept this in an area that was so strategically placed between them and Rhodesia, and bargained with Britain not to allow Seretse’s chieftaincy.
The Apartheid government in South Africa had banned inter-racial marriages and the marriage of a black chief to a British white woman was a problem. The British government feared that South Africa would invade Bechuanaland or that it would immediately move for full independence.
This was a concern because Britain was still heavily in debt after World War II and could not afford to lose the mineral wealth of South Africa, especially gold and uranium (needed for Britain’s atomic bomb projects).
Back in Bechuanaland Tshekedi was annoyed – he attempted to disrupt the marriage and demanded that Seretse return home to have it annulled. Seretse came back immediately and was received by Tshekedi with the words “You Seretse, come here ruined by others, not by me.” Seretse fought hard to persuade the Bama-Ngwato people of his continued suitability as chief, and on 21 June 1949 at a Kgotla (a meeting of the elders) he was declared Kgosi, and his new wife was warmly welcomed.
Consequently, he was still exiled to England in 1951. But five years later a new Commonwealth minister decided to distance Britain from South Africa’s racist policies, and Seretse and Ruth were allowed back into Bechuanaland, but only as normal citizens. Here he tried his hand at cattle farming and local politics, but many saw him as out-of-touch with current affairs. His health, which had bothered him as a child already, was growing worse and in 1960 he was diagnosed with diabetes. This setback did not prevent him from making a political comeback, however: soon afterwards he became the leader of the Bechuanaland Democratic Party (BDP), which drew large support from both progressive and conservative circles. In 1965 the BDP won the elections, and Seretse Khama became Prime Minister. The next year, Bechuanaland gained its independence from Britain. The new republic’s name was changed to Botswana, and Seretse Khama became its first President.
The country inherited by President Khama was riven with problems. At the time, it was probably Africa’s poorest country, greatly indebted to Britain and surrounded by White-ruled states. But Khama refused to submit to their control, and under his rule Botswana’s economy, administration and relations with other Black African states were repaired and developed. During his time as President Botswana had the fastest growing economy in the world. The discovery of diamond deposits allowed the government to finance the creation of a new social infrastructure. The country’s second major export resource, beef, allowed for the development of wealthy entrepreneurs.
Khama instituted strong measures against corruption, the bane of so many other newly independent African nations. Unlike other countries in Africa, his administration adopted market-friendly policies to foster economic development. Khama promised low and stable taxes to mining companies, liberalized trade, and increased personal freedoms. He maintained low marginal income tax rates to deter tax evasion and corruption. He upheld liberal democracy and non-racism in the midst of a region embroiled in civil war, racial enmity and corruption. Khama embraced the rule of law.
The small public service was transformed into an efficient and relatively corruption-free bureaucracy with workers hired based on merit. Calls to immediately “indigenise” the bureaucracy were resisted, and the government retained foreign expatriates working in the bureaucracy until suitably qualified locals could be found to replace them. Khama and his people also drew on international advisers and consultants. Mining companies were encouraged to search the country for more resources, leading to the discovery of additional copper, nickel, and coal deposits.
This was a period of much civil strife on the African continent, but Botswana remained free from war and corruption.
In his last years he played an important role in southern African politics when he negotiated the future of Zimbabwe and South West Africa/Namibia and developed a vision of a southern Africa post-colonialism and post-apartheid, seen to be a key part in the development of the Southern African Development Community that has since been founded.
Khama’s health continued to bother him. He received frequent and intensive medical treatment, and on 13 July 1980, he died in Gaborone, Botswana of pancreatic cancer. Before his death, however, he did see Zimbabwe’s independence and the launching of the Southern African Development Coordination Conference (SADCC) in April 1980. July 1 (his birthdate) is celebrated as a public holiday in Botswana, Sir Seretse Khama Day.
Seretse Khama had strong views on history and in a notable speech at the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland in 1970 he said:
“In a very positive way, to despise ourselves and our ways of life. We were made to believe that we had no past to speak of, no history to boast of. The past, so far as we were concerned, was just a blank and nothing more. Only the present mattered and we had very little control over it. It seemed we were in for a definite period of foreign tutelage, without any hope of our ever again becoming our own masters. The end result of all this was that our self-pride and our self-confidence were badly undermined.
“It should now be our intention to try to retrieve what we can of our past. We should write our own history books to prove that we did have a past, and that it was a past that was just as worth writing and learning about as any other. We must do this for the simple reason that a nation without a past is a lost nation, and a people without a past is a people without a soul”. (Adapted)