Biography of Sir Seretse Khama, African Statesman

Seretse Khama and his wife

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Seretse Khama (July 1, 1921–July 13, 1980) was the first prime minister and president of Botswana. Overcoming political resistance to his interracial marriage, he became the country's first post-colonial leader and served from 1966 to his death in 1980. During his tenure, he oversaw Botswana's rapid economic development.

Fast Facts: Sir Seretse Khama

  • Known For: First prime minister and president of post-colonial Botswana 
  • Born: July 1, 1921 in Serowe, British Protectorate of Bechuanaland
  • Parents: Tebogo Kebailele and Sekgoma Khama II
  • Died: July 13, 1980 in Gaborone, Botswana
  • Education: Fort Hare College, South Africa; Balliol College, Oxford, England; the Inner Temple, London, England
  • Published Works: From the Frontline: Speeches of Sir Seretse Khama
  • Spouse: Ruth Williams Khama
  • Children: Jacqueline Khama, Ian Khama, Tshekedi Khama II, Anthony Khama
  • Notable Quote: "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." 

Early Life

Seretse Khama was born in Serowe, British Protectorate of Bechuanaland, on July 1, 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.

Kgama III died in 1923 and the paramountcy briefly passed to his son Sekgoma II, who died two years later. At the age of 4, Seretse Khama effectively became Kgosi and his uncle Tshekedi Khama was made regent.

Studying in Oxford and London

Seretse Khama was educated in South Africa and graduated from Fort Hare College in 1944 with a Bachelor's degree. 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 who was working as a clerk at Lloyd's. Their marriage in September 1948 threw southern Africa into political turmoil.

Repercussions of Mixed Marriage

The apartheid government in South Africa had banned interracial 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 particularly a concern for Britain because it was still heavily in debt after World War II. Britain could not afford to lose the mineral wealth of South Africa, especially gold and uranium (needed for Britain's atomic bomb projects).

Mixed Marriage Controversy Resolved

Back in Bechuanaland, the regent Tshekedi, Khama's uncle, 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. On June 21, 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 he was met with a Parliamentary investigation into his suitability for the chieftaincy. While Bechuanaland was under its protection, Britain claimed the right to ratify any succession.

Unfortunately for the British government, the investigation's report concluded that Seretse was "eminently fit to rule." The British subsequently suppressed the report for 30 years. Seretse and his wife were banished 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. They could return on the condition that both he and his uncle renounced their claim to the chieftaincy.

What the British did not expect was the political acclaim that six years of exile had given him back home. Seretse Khama was seen 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, South Africa, to the newly established capital of Gaborone. Seretse Khama was elected as Prime Minister.

When the country achieved independence on September 30, 1966, Seretse became the first president of the Republic of Botswana. He was reelected twice and died in office in 1980.

President of Botswana

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 (starting from a point of great poverty).

The discovery of diamond deposits allowed the government to finance the creation of new social infrastructure. The country's second major export resource, beef, allowed for the development of wealthy entrepreneurs.

International Roles

While 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.

Khama 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 negotiator in the creation of the Southern African Development Coordination Conference (SADCC) which was launched in April 1980, shortly before his death.

Death

On July 13, 1980, Seretse Khama died in office of pancreatic cancer. He was buried in the Royal Cemetery. Quett Ketumile Joni Masire, his vice president, took office and served (with reelection) until March 1998.

Legacy

Botswana was a poor and internationally obscure country when Seretse Khama became its first post-colonial leader. At the time of his death, Khama had led Botswana to become more economically developed and increasingly democratic. It had become an important broker in Southern African politics.

Since Seretse Khama's death, Botswanan 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, which form 6% of the country's population, with pressure for land around the Okavango Delta increasing as cattle ranchers and mines move in.

Sources

  • Khama, Seretse. From the Frontline: Speeches of Sir Seretse Khama. Hoover Institute Press, 1980.
  • Sahoboss. “President Seretse Khama.” South African History Online, 31 August 2018.
  • Seretse Khama 1921–80.” Sir Seretse Khama.