Sir Seretse Khama

Portrait of Sir Seretse Khama
Evening Standard / Getty Images

Seretse Khama was the first prime minister of Botswana, and from 1966 to his death in 1980, he served as the country's first president.

Seretse (the name means "the clay that binds together") Khama was born in Serowe, British Protectorate of Bechuanaland, on 1 July 1921. His grandfather, Kgama III, was paramount chief (Kgosi) of the Bama-Ngwato, part of the Tswana people of the region. Kgama III had traveled to London in 1885, leading a delegation which asked for Crown protection to be given to Bechuanaland, foiling the empire building ambitions of Cecil Rhodes and the incursions of the Boers.

Kgosi of the Bama-Ngwato

Kgama III died in 1923 and the paramountcy briefly passed to his son Sekgoma II, who died a couple of years later (in 1925). At the age of four Seretse Khama effectively became Kgosi and his uncle Tshekedi Khama was made regent.

Studying at Oxford and London

Seretse Khama was educated in South Africa and graduated from Fort Hare College in 1944 with a BA. In 1945 he left for England to study law—Initially for a year at Balliol College, Oxford, and then at the Inner Temple, London. In June 1947 Seretse Khama first met Ruth Williams, a WAAF ambulance driver during World War II now working as a clerk at Lloyds. Their marriage in September 1948 threw southern Africa into political turmoil.

Repercussions of Mixed Marriage

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 demanding 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.

Fit To Rule

Seretse Khama returned to Britain to continue with his law studies, but was met with a Parliamentary investigation into his suitability for the chieftaincy—whilst Bechuanaland was under its protection, Britain claimed the right to ratify any succession. Unfortunately for the government, the investigation's report concluded that Seretse was "eminently fit to rule"—it was kept suppressed for thirty years. Seretse and his wife were banished him from Bechuanaland in 1950.

Nationalist Hero

Under international pressure for its apparent racism, Britain relented and allowed Seretse Khama and his wife to return to Bechuanaland in 1956, but only if both he and his uncle renounced their claim to the chieftaincy. What hadn't been expected was the political acclaim that six years exile had given him back home—Seretse Khama was acclaimed as a nationalist hero. In 1962 Seretse founded the Bechuanaland Democratic Party and campaigned for multi-racial reform.

Elected Prime Minister

High on Seretse Khama's agenda was a need for democratic self-government, and he pushed the British authorities hard for independence. In 1965 the center of Bechuanaland government was moved from Mafikeng, in South Africa, to the newly established capital of Gaborone—and Seretse Khama was elected as Prime Minister. When the country achieved independence on 30 September 1966, Seretse became the first president of the Republic of Botswana. He was re-elected twice and died in office in 1980.

President of Botswana

"We stand virtually alone in our belief that a non-racial society can work now, but there are those .. who will be only too delighted to see our experiment fail."

Seretse Khama used his influence with the country's various ethnic groups and traditional chiefs to create a strong, democratic government. During his rule, Botswana had the most rapidly growing economy of the world (remember it started very low) and 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.

Whilst in power Seretse Khama refused to allow neighboring liberation movements to establish camps in Botswana, but permitted transit to camps in Zambia -- this resulted in several raids from South Africa and Rhodesia. He also played a prominent role in the negotiated transition from White minority rule in Rhodesia to multi-racial rule in Zimbabwe. He was also a key negotiant in the creation of the Southern African Development Co-ordination Conference (SADCC) which was launched in April 1980, shortly before his death.

On 13 July 1980, Seretse Khama died in office of pancreatic cancer. Quett Ketumile Joni Masire, his vice president, took office and served (with re-election) until March 1998.

Since Seretse Khama's death, Batswanan politicians and cattle barons have begun to dominate the country's economy, to the detriment of the working classes. The situation is more serious for the minority Bushman peoples (Basarwa Herero, etc) which form only 6% of the country's population, with pressure for land around the Okavango Delta increasing as cattle ranchers and mines move in.