Who Was Sir Seretse Khama? Botswana’s Pacifist Revolutionary

Seretse Khama made an usual mark in the arena of politics in southern Africa, but his role in Botswana’s road to independence is unheralded history.

When writers from various disciplines write about Sir Seretse Khama, one dominant narrative is that he was an intelligent and visionary leader with a wicked sense of humour. Despite this considerable appraisal surrounding him—which includes a 2016 immortalization of his life by David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike on the big screen—there appears to be broad consensus that Khama’s role in Botswana’s road to independence is a history unheralded, especially in relation to that of other farsighted and charismatic post-independence African leaders and revolutionaries. On one hand, his name seldom rings a bell intercontinentally; his relative obscurity is rather puzzling considering his economic and socio-political strides in post-independence Botswana. On the other hand, his legacy is celebrated in his home country of Botswana, particularly as Botswana is the longest-running multi-party democracy in Africa, with a relatively low level of corruption.


In 1966 when Khama became president of Botswana, Botswana was the third poorest country in the world due to British neglect and had been written off as a ‘desert for Bushmen’. Twenty years later, in 1986, the World Bank classified Botswana as a middle-income country and later in 2005, as an upper-middle-income country. Botswana had the longest-running multi-party system in Africa, with a history free of civil war, strife, and coups—one which hardly any state in Africa could boast of.

Certain factors allowed Botswana some head start. The political terrain which Khama chiefly had to navigate along with his comrades was less rough, owing to the efforts of traditional Tswana rulers who, in 1895, had parleyed with Britain’s Queen Victoria and resisted moves to hand over the territory of Bechuanaland to both neighbouring Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and, later, the then-Union of South of Africa. The tgosis (traditional rulers) strongly believed that it would be optimal to keep the territory under direct British annexation rather than have it become a typical settler colony.

The colonial experience differed greatly among protectorates and settler colonies, with the colonists in the latter maintaining an iron grip. The countries administered as settler colonies, Angola, Mozambique, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia, would have to achieve independence through protracted, bloody and armed struggle. Botswana being under direct British annexation rather than a typical settler colony meant that colonization did not completely alter pre-existing ruling systems in Botswana (or Bechuanaland, as it was).

Seretse Goitsebeng Maphiri Khama was born on 1 July 1921 in Serowe, a village in east-central Bechuanaland Protectorate, which served at the time as a settlement point for European missionaries and traders from 1885 onwards. His mother, Queen Tebogo, had been betrothed to the elderly Sekgoma Khama II, the paramount chief of the Bangwato people. The young child was christened ‘Seretse’ which translates to ‘the clay that binds’ to symbolize the resolution of a conflict which his father and grandfather had been embroiled in prior to his birth. On this note, his assumption of the throne was assured, and following the death of his father at the age of four, Khama was appointed the kgosi (king) with his uncle to serve as his sole guardian and regent until his coming of age.

Khama was educated at the Tiger Kloof Educational Centre in South Africa and, subsequently, at Fort Hare University College from which he graduated with a BA in 1944. Like many of his post-colonial counterparts, he sought a legal education in England in 1945, and enrolled for a year at Balliol College, Oxford University. His eventual marriage to Ruth Williams in 1946 would trigger a political controversy that would shape his image, both home and abroad.


Ruth Williams was a White Englishwoman Khama had met in 1947 while studying in Britain and was the daughter of a retired officer of the British army in India. When news of Williams and Khama’s union got to his home country, Khama’s uncle, Tshekedi, ordered for his return and demanded that he divorce his wife. Initially, the marriage was also opposed by the elders of the Bangwato people who felt indignant that Khama had not married one of his people. Upon his return in 1950, however, Khama received popular approval after a series of public meetings and was reaffirmed as the kgosi by the elders of the village. As a result, his uncle Tshekedi went on voluntary exile.

Although this resolution had been reached, the National Party government of the neighbouring Union of South Africa heavily opposed the idea of an interracial couple ruling in Bechuanaland. Especially in light of the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, an anti-miscegenation law, which South Africa’s National Party had passed in 1949 to further reinforce the apartheid system. Consequently, the government banned Khama and his wife from South Africa. This ban also barred the couple from visiting Mafeking, which served as the administrative capital of Bechuanaland. The government took a step further by appealing to the British government to exercise its powers over the Bechuanaland Protectorate by stripping Khama of his chieftainship.

At this time, Britain was in its so-called ‘age of austerity’, being heavy-laden by debt accrued due to the Second World War. This placed immense pressure on Britain’s ruling Attlee ministry which was reliant on cheap South African gold and uranium supplies. The ministry also feared that the tensions could escalate to the imposition of economic sanctions or a military incursion into Bechuanaland by the belligerent Afrikaner government if it failed to act. As such, Britain commenced a judicial inquiry into Khama’s fitness for ruling the Bangwato people and, subsequently, ruled that Khama was fit to rule the Bangwato people but for his marriage which posed a threat to peaceful international relations with neighbouring nations. Unsurprisingly, Britain succumbed to the South African government in order to protect its economic interests, suppressed the report and exiled Seretse Khama and his wife from Bechuanaland in 1951.

The exile was considered racist and thus was stiffly opposed by various groups in Bechuanaland as well as Britain, who repeatedly demanded that Lord Salisbury, the Minister responsible for the decision, tender his resignation. Lord Salisbury was heavily criticised by the press, with the Daily Express writing: ‘For the nation’s good, Lord Salisbury’s first deed as Commonwealth Relations Secretary should be his last’.

In the face of the swelling opposition it faced, the British High Commission ordered that Khama be replaced as kgosi. The people of Bechuanaland, however, refused to accede to these directives. Regardless, Khama was still denied entry into his homeland until 1956 when he and his uncle Tshekedi were allowed to return as ‘free citizens with as full political rights as anyone else…’ after signing a joint agreement of the renunciation of his Chieftainship. Thus, in 1956, Khama and his wife returned to Bechuanaland as private citizens, after which he started a cattle ranching business. Following the failure of the business, Khama switched to local politics and was elected as the secretary of the tribal council in 1957.


In November 1961, Khama spearheaded the formation of the Bechuanaland Democratic Party (BDP) along with other members of the African Advisory Council in Lobatse. Prior to this, the Bechuanaland Peoples Party (BPP), which was the first mass political party in Bechuanaland, was established by Motsamai Mpho and P.G. Matante, who had been involved in the activities of the African National Council in South Africa. The BPP had however been unsuccessful due to behind-the-curtain dissensions and popular views about the BPP being a regional party which appealed to a narrow portion of the electorate. Khama was spurred to form the BDP due to his disagreement with the BPP’s ideology which he perceived as radical. For one, while the BPP demanded immediate independence, and an end to communal representation and white dominance, Khama desired an orderly transition to independence through the mechanism of a negotiated constitution and an advisory role of tribal leaders. Desiring a society united among all regardless of race, he feared that that the party’s ideology could breed factions and thus balkanize society.

BDP won 80.45 per cent of parliamentary seats during the 1965 elections, easily dominating due to countrywide organization, prominence of its paper, Therisanyo (Consultations), as well as Khama’s popularity following his exile. Such brazen defiance of British powers in particular resonated with the nationalist-leaning electorate. Ironically, Khama was later recognized by Elizabeth II, during her birthday celebrations in 1966, and appointed a Knight Commander (KBE) for his political contributions to the country. Khama was also elected prime minister of Bechuanaland and he used this position to push for the country’s independence. On 30 September 1966, Bechuanaland gained independence from Britain and was renamed ‘Botswana’. By virtue of Chapter IV of the newly enacted constitution, Sir Seretse Khama became the nation’s president.

Khama’s contributions to freeing Bechuanaland from colonization included developing a political ideology that fit perfectly into the country’s socioeconomic landscape. As significant as these contributions were, it was his strides as head-of-state that cemented his legacy as one of the most transformative figures in African post-colonial history. The image of pre-colonial Bechuanaland stands in stark contrast to the reimagined picture painted by Khama. At the time of its independence in 1966, Botswana was the world’s third poorest country. In order to turn around the country’s economic fortunes (or misfortunes), Khama embarked upon export-centred economic measures, focusing on copper, beef, and diamonds. This was fostered by the discovery of the Orapa diamond deposits (now the largest diamond mine in the world by area). Eventually, copper and nickel deposits were discovered in Selebi-Phikwe and coal at Marupule. His administration also adopted the free-market system which was relatively unpopular at the time as most of the newly independent African countries leaned towards socialist, Marxist or Marxist/Leninist economic ideologies.

Perhaps a key takeaway from Khama’s rule is that it was not solitary mechanisms that were able to exact such profound change. While Khama’s leadership and remarkable foresight advanced Botswana and developed the economy in a fashion comparable to almost no other African country during that period, Khama’s vision was shared by the country’s other institutions. The dyad formed between him and Vice-president Quett Masire, for example, was ideologically compatible from all indications, and the public service had also been transformed into a bureaucracy and corruption-free body which efficiently executed policies of government. Although there were increasing calls to indigenize the public service, Khama resisted these calls, insisting on competence over extraction. In his first presidential speech, President Khama stated: ‘My government is deeply conscious of the dangers inherent in localizing the public service too quickly. Precipitate or reckless action in this field could have disastrous effects on the whole programme of services and development of the government.’

Additionally, Botswana hired international consultants who were charged with further natural resource exploration. The country thrived economically on the back of diamond revenues and had the fastest-growing economy in the world between 1960 and 1980. This had been made possible due to Botswana’s great negotiation skills, which enabled the government to gain a greater share of revenues from international partners such as De Beers, and the customs union it had entered into with South Africa. In 1975, Botswana’s diamond mining agreements with companies such as De Beers were renegotiated to ensure that the government earned about 50 per cent of all diamond revenues upon realization of how profitable the diamond mines had become.

Khama also directly championed the negotiation of beef trade agreements with the European Economic Community (now the European Union), which enabled the country to sell beef at prices higher than the world standard. His government further sought to diversify revenue sources by establishing the Botswana Development Corporation, which would be charged with attracting foreign investment in the secondary, tourism and crop agriculture sectors. The revenues regenerated were reinvested into infrastructure, education, health and cattle production subsidies. Although there are currently concerns about a rising level of inequality in Botswana, this move led to development in both the rural and urban areas at the time.

Khama also sought out relations with Zambia’s President Kenneth Kaunda to free the country from its image of being a docile hostage state. Khama was also a pacifist who was explicitly non-aligned in matters of international relations. Richard Dale tells of this in his book, Botswana’s Search for Autonomy in South Africa, stating that a week after independence, he announced before the National Assembly that by virtue of the Prevention of Violence Abroad Act, his government’s policy would be to ensure that Botswana never became a base of operations for attacking any other nation. However, Khama would later form a small professional military to counteract repeated incursions by South African and Rhodesian forces. Subsequently, he would play a key role in negotiations for the independence of Rhodesia and creation of the country currently known as Zimbabwe. Khama was a beacon of democracy and advocated additionally for the independence of South Africa and Namibia and an end to the apartheid system. He would witness the independence of Zimbabwe in 1980, before his death in the same year.

Khama had health challenges which began with his diagnosis of diabetes in the 1960s. He had undergone treatment from 1968 to 1969 and was fitted with a pacemaker in 1977. His worsening health was exacerbated by the rigours of travel and, thus, he died at the age of 59 from pancreatic cancer. Notwithstanding the level of development in the Botswana’s health sector, Khama almost entirely sought medical treatment abroad, in either Johannesburg or London—to, interestingly, very little public reaction or outcry, judging by the absence of related literature.


Without a doubt, Khama made a mark in the arena of politics in southern Africa. His story is telling that people no longer need to believe that due recognition of fundamental human rights and economic development are mutually exclusive, especially within Africa. Furthermore, he exemplifies that visionary leadership cannot singlehandedly steer a state right; that there must be in place, systems which provide watered ground for such policies to take sturdy root.

Khama’s legacy is long-lasting, and according to data provided by the World Bank, Botswana achieved the highest rate of per capita income growth per annum between 1965 and 1999—19 years after Khama’s death. Botswana has also been ranked by Transparency International as the country with the lowest perceived corruption in Africa.

It is important to recognize that Khama was not a saint by any means. His critics included those who felt that his 14-year long leadership, albeit constitutional and the apparent voice of the electorate, threatened the country’s multi-party system. This situation continues in Botswana today, with the BDP having been in power since the country gained independence, although some have argued that fragmentation among opposition parties has allowed for the BDP’s longevity. Additionally, there have been allegations against the present government of inequitably distributing the oft reported economic wealth of the country as about half of the technically rich country lives in poverty. There have also been protracted court battles between the government and the San Bushmen whose lands were expropriated. Hence, it appears that while Khama made considerable progress during his time, there remains more to be done in Botswana

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