University of Botswana History Department

Seretse Khama
1921 - 80

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A brief biography of Sir Seretse Khama, Botswana's first president:

Seretse Khama (1921-80), founding President of Botswana, 1966-80. He inherited an impoverished and internationally obscure state from British rule, and left an increasingly democratic and prosperous country with a significant role in Southern Africa.

Seretse Khama was born on 1 July 1921 at Serowe in the British protectorate of Bechuanaland. He was was the son of Sekgoma Khama, and the grandson of the internationally famous Kgosi Khama III (c.1835-1923), ruler of the Bangwato people of central Botswana. He was named Seretse-the clay that binds together-because of the recent reconciliation between his father and grandfather. Seretse's mother, Tebogo Kebailele, had been chosen by Khama to be the new wife of the ageing Sekgoma. When Sekgoma died in 1925, four-year old Seretse was proclaimed Kgosi. His uncle Tshekedi Khama became regent and later sole guardian for him.

The lonely and often sickly child was sent to boarding schools in South Africa, but developed into a healthy and gregarious adolescent sportsman. He attended Fort Hare University College and graduated with a general BA degree in 1944. In August 1945 he was sent to England for a legal education. After a year at Balliol College, Oxford, he enrolled for barrister studies at the Inner Temple, London.

In 1947 Seretse Khama met an English woman of his age, Ruth Williams, daughter of a retired army officer. They were married in September 1948. Uncle Tshekedi ordered Seretse home to berate him and demand a divorce. But, after a series of public meetings in Serowe, Seretse turned his people against Tshekedi, and was popularly recognised as Kgosi together with his wife. Tshekedi gave way and went into self-exile.

The proclamation of a black chief with a white wife, in a territory strategically placed between South Africa and the Rhodesias, caused outcry among white settler politicians. South Africa had come under the control of white Afrikaner nationalists in 1948. The British were told that there was no chance of the pro-British opposition party winning the next all-white election in South Africa, if Seretse Khama was allowed to be chief of the Bangwato.

The Labour government in Britain desperately needed South African gold and uranium. It agreed to bar Seretse Khama from chieftainship. The Commonwealth relations minister denied that the government was bowing to racism, and lied about this before the House of Commons. A judicial enquiry was set up to prove Seretse's personal unfitness to rule. However, Justice Harragin concluded that Seretse was eminently fit to rule. His report was therefore suppressed by the British government for thirty years. Seretse and his wife were exiled to England in 1951, and in 1952 the new Conservative government declared the exile permanent.

The treatment of Seretse and Ruth Khama by British governments received international press coverage, and outrage was expressed by a wide range of people including human-rights activists, Scottish, West African, Indian and West Indian nationalists, British communists, and conservatives who supported the principle of aristocratic inheritance. Eventually, in 1956, a new Commonwealth relations minister realised that Britain must distance itself from institutionalized racism in South Africa, and decided to allow Seretse and Ruth home as commoners and private citizens.

Back home, Seretse Khama was still respected as a man of principle and integrity, but was generally seen as being out-of-touch and a yesterday's man. He was a not too successful cattle rancher and dabbler in local politics, and declined in health until incipient diabetes was diagnosed in 1960. Then, however, much to everyone's surprise, in 1961 he was suddenly energized as a nationalist politician.

The Bechuanaland Democratic Party (BDP), with Seretse Khama at its head, drew overwhelming support from rural progressives and conservatives alike. The liberal-democratic BDP swept aside its pan-Africanist and socialist rivals in the small railway towns, to win the first universal franchise elections of 1965. Seretse Khama became prime minister and then, on 30 September 1966, president of the Republic of Botswana.

President Khama and the new republic began with an international image problem. It was widely assumed that his country had no option but to sell-out to its all-powerful white neighbours, South Africa (including South-West Africa) and Southern Rhodesia. Botswana was believed to be the poorest country in Africa. The new government could not cover the costs of administration from taxes, and was continually indebted to Britain.

The first task was to lay the groundwork for an export-oriented economy, based on beef processing and copper and diamond mining. President Khama then turned his personal attention to foreign policy, seeking out allies such as President Kaunda of Zambia to break Botswana free from its image of being a docile 'hostage' state. He also used his unique authority to develop local democracy and quash the powers of traditional chiefs, to develop citizen administrative capacity without over-bureaucratization, and to promote the rule of law in the operations of the state.

Though Botswana came to be described as a 'paternalist democracy' under the dominance of one political party, it succeded in establishing itself as both prosperous and peaceful. Between 1966 and 1980 Botswana had the fastest growing economy in the world. It also came to be seen a remarkable state with high principles, upholding liberal democracy and non-racialism in the midst of a region embroiled in civil war, racial enmity and corruption. State mineral revenues were invested in infrastructural development, education and health, and in subsidies to cattle production. The result was a great increase in general prosperity, in rural as well as urban areas, though with inequities that were to become increasing apparent after the death of Seretse Khama.

Seretse Khama was known for his intelligence and integrity, and a wicked sense of humour --puncturing the pomposity of those who had too high an opinion of themselves. He also went through cycles of ill-health and depression, exacerbated by diabetes. He underwent intensive medical treatment in 1968-69 and in 1976-77, when he was fitted with a heart pacemaker, but bounced back energetically in both cases with an innovative period lasting for years. His wife, Ruth Khama, remained the guardian of his health and homelife, but had relatively little influence on his politics.

In his last years Seretse Khama looked increasingly outwards and onwards. He was one of the "Front-Line Presidents" who negotiated the future of Zimbabwe and Namibia. He developed a vision of the future of Southern Africa after colonialism and apartheid, as a peaceful, democratic and prosperous region. He was thus the key founder of what has since become the Southern African Development Community.

The rigours of constant travel by air for international negotiations, leading up to the independence of Zimbabwe, finally exhausted Seretse Khama. But he had the final satisfaction of witnessing both the independence of Zimbabwe in March 1980 and the launching of the Southern African Development Coordination Conference in April, before his death on 13 July 1980. He was buried in the Khama family graveyard, on the hill at Serowe overlooking his birthplace.

Neil Parsons

We were taught, sometimes 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.

(Sir Seretse Khama, speech of Chancellor at University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland graduation ceremony, 15 May 1970; Botswana Daily News, 19 May 1970, supplement.)
[See note on the misquotation of this speech.]

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Copyright © 1999 Neil Parsons
Last updated 26 May 2008