A Brief History of Botswana

Africa's Oldest Democracy

African Elephant at Water Hole, Botswana
Paul Souders/Getty Images

The Republic of Botswana in southern Africa was once a British protectorate but now is an independent country with a stable democracy. It is also an economic success story, rising from its status as one of the poorest countries of the world to the middle-income level, with sound financial institutions and plans to reinvest its natural resource income. Botswana is a landlocked country dominated by the Kalahari Desert and flatlands, rich in diamonds and other minerals.

Early History and People

Botswana has been inhabited by humans since the dawn of modern humans about 100,000 years ago. The San and Khoi peoples were the original inhabitants of this area and South Africa. They lived as hunter-gatherers and spoke Khoisan languages, noted for their click consonants.

Migrations of People into Botswana

The Great Zimbabwe empire extended into eastern Botswana a thousand years ago, and more groups migrated into the Transvaal. The area's major ethnic group is the Batswana who were herders and farmers living in tribal groups. There were larger migrations into Botswana of these people from South Africa during the Zulu wars of the early 1800s. The group traded ivory and skins with the Europeans in exchange for guns and were Christianized by missionaries.

British Establish the Bechuanaland Protectorate

Dutch Boer settlers entered Botswana from the Transvaal, sparking hostilities with the Batswana.

The leaders of the Batswana sought assistance from the British. As a result, the Bechuanaland Protectorate was established on March 31, 1885, including modern Botswana and parts of present-day South Africa.

Pressure to Join the Union of South Africa

The inhabitants of the protectorate did not want to be included in the proposed Union of South Africa when it was formed in 1910.

They were successful in staving it off, but South Africa continued to pressure the UK to incorporate Bechuanaland, Basutoland, and Swaziland into South Africa.

Separate advisory councils of Africans and Europeans were established in the protectorate and the tribal rule and powers were further developed and regularized. Meanwhile, South Africa elected a nationalist government and established apartheid. A European-African advisory council was formed in 1951, and a consultative legislative council was established by a constitution in 1961. In that year, South Africa withdrew from the British Commonwealth.

Botswana Independence and Democratic Stability

Independence was secured peacefully by Botswana in June 1964. They established a constitution in 1965 and held general elections to finalize independence in 1966. The first president was Seretse Khama, who was the grandson of King Khama III of the Bamangwato people and a prominent figure in the movement for independence. He was trained in law in Britain and married to a white British woman. He served three terms and died in office in 1980. His vice president, Ketumile Masire, likewise was reelected several times, followed by Festus Mogae and then Khama's son, Ian Khama.

Botswana continues to have a stable democracy.

Challenges for the Future

Botswana is home to the world's largest diamond mine and its leaders are wary of over-dependence on a single industry. Their economic growth has raised them into the middle-income bracket, although there is still high unemployment and socioeconomic stratification.

A significant challenge is the HIV/AIDS epidemic, with a prevalence estimated at over 20 percent in adults, the third highest in the world.​

Source: US Department of State Background Notes