2019 - 2020 Modern Volume 11

Underdog to African Success Story: Sir Seretse Khama and the birth of modern Botswana

By Kerry Lindeque

In 1966, when Botswana asked to be granted independence by the British government they were labelled as “either brave or very foolish”. The British protectorate, known at the time as Bechuanaland, had 12km of paved road, a literacy rate of 25% and was one of the twenty poorest countries in the world. Bordered by apartheid South Africa, who was in its ‘golden age’ of white minority rule and political domination, there was little hope of Botswana’s success as an independent state. And yet, over the next twenty years, it would go on to create a state based on political freedom and multiracialism, have the fastest growing economy in the world and create one of the most successful multi-party democracies on the continent. Unlike many African countries emerging from colonial domination, Botswana has never experienced war, dictatorships or political violence. 

So how did this “worthless strip of territory” become of one Africa’s greatest post-independence success stories? Perhaps the largest contribution to this was work of its leaders, particularly by its first president, Sir Seretse Khama. But Sir Khama was more than just a political leader – he became a figurehead of racial equality in the struggle against white supremacy.

Sir Seretse Khama’s origins as a leader began from birth. Born into a powerful African royal family, he became kgosi (king) of the Bamangwato tribe of Botswana aged just four. Being born into leadership meant that Seretse’s life was intertwined with politics from a young age. But it was his marriage to Ruth Williams, a white English woman, in 1948, which thrust his private life into international politics. The National Party, which governed South Africa during apartheid, saw the union as an affront to their way of life. Using economic pressure, they were able to compel the British government into exiling Seretse from Bechuanaland on account of his “unfortunate marriage”. While Seretse and Ruth were able to return in 1956, he was forced to renounce his claim to the throne of the Bamangwato people. Seretse’s shocking treatment by the British government hardened his dislike of racial segregation and arbitrary government, as well as strengthening his desire to resist the political pressures of apartheid South Africa, by proving that Botswana could succeed as a multiracial society. 

But creating a thriving, functioning state out of the former British protectorate would be no easy task. Botswana had no system of national government in place. In fact, its administrative capital under British rule had been located in Mafeking, South Africa. But Seretse, and his party, the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), when first elected in 1962, rose to the occasion. They created a constitution which insisted on political freedoms and individual rights, free from racial discrimination. Their political system was one which merged modern institutions, such as the newly created and democratically elected National Assembly, with traditional leadership. Unlike other countries, such as Uganda, where chieftainship was completely abolished, in Botswana the House of Chiefs meant that chiefs retained some legislative power, albeit advisory. Another highly important factor in Botswana’s success was the BDP’s handling of Botswana’s precious metals. Through the 1967 Mines and Minerals Act, as well as several important negotiations with the Customs Union, mining companies and the De Beers Group, Seretse and his government were able to secure 50% of all diamond profits for the state. The resulting economic growth was invested in infrastructure, health and education.

The importance of Botswana’s success as a multiracial society cannot be overstated. By prospering as an independent country, it could provide a real-world example of how racial equality could function in southern Africa. South Africa, desperately clinging to the principles of apartheid, believed they would fail. Britain had little hope either. But Botswana proved them both wrong. Sir Seretse Khama’s integrity and skills as a politician meant that the new state thrived economically and remained politically stable. With his leadership, Botswana went from colonial underdog to one of Africa’s greatest success stories. 


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