Seretse Khama

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Sir Seretse Goitsebeng Maphire Khama
1st President of Botswana
In office
30 September 1966 – 13 July 1980
Preceded by Position Established
Succeeded by Quett Masire
1st Prime Minister of Botswana
In office
3 March 1965 – 30 September 1966
Preceded by Position Established
Succeeded by Position Abolished
Personal details
Born (1921-07-01)1 July 1921
Serowe, Bechuanaland
Died 13 July 1980(1980-07-13) (aged 59)
Gaborone, Botswana
Nationality Motswana
Political party Botswana Democratic Party
Spouse(s) Ruth Williams Khama
Alma mater University of Fort Hare
Balliol College, Oxford
Profession Barrister
Religion Christian

Sir Seretse Goitsebeng Maphiri Khama, KBE (1 July 1921 – 13 July 1980) was the first president of Botswana. Born into one of the more powerful of the royal families of what was then the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland, and educated abroad in neighbouring South Africa and in the United Kingdom, he returned home—with a popular but controversial bride—to lead his country's independence movement. He founded the Botswana Democratic Party in 1962 and became Prime Minister in 1965. In 1966, Botswana gained independence and Khama became its first president. During his presidency, the country underwent rapid economic and social progress.[1]

Childhood and education[edit]

Seretse Khama was born in 1921 in Serowe, in what was then the Bechuanaland Protectorate. He was the son of Sekgoma Khama II and Queen Tebogo, the paramount chief of the Bamangwato people, and the grandson of Khama III, their king. The name "Seretse" means “the clay that binds",[2] and was given to him to celebrate the recent reconciliation of his father and grandfather; this reconciliation assured Seretse’s own ascension to the throne with his aged father’s death in 1925. At the age of four, Seretse became kgosi (king), with his uncle Tshekedi Khama as his regent and guardian.

After spending most of his youth in Tiger Kloof Educational Institution in South Africa, Khama attended Fort Hare University College there, graduating with a general B.A. in 1944. He then travelled to the United Kingdom and spent a year at Balliol College, Oxford, before joining the Inner Temple in London in 1946, to study to become a barrister.

Marriage and exile[edit]

In June 1947, Khama met Ruth Williams, an English clerk at Lloyd's of London, and after a year of courtship, married her. The interracial marriage sparked a furore among both the apartheid government of South Africa and the tribal elders of the Bamangwato. On being informed of the marriage, Khama's uncle Tshekedi Khama demanded his return to Bechuanaland and the annulment of the marriage. Khama did return to Serowe but after a series of kgotlas (public meetings), was re-affirmed by the elders in his role as the kgosi in 1949. Ruth Williams Khama, travelling with her new husband, proved similarly popular. Admitting defeat, Tshekedi Khama left Bechuanaland, while Khama returned to London to complete his studies.

However, the international ramifications of his marriage would not be so easily resolved. Having banned interracial marriage under the apartheid system, South Africa could not afford to have an interracial couple ruling just across their northern border. As Bechuanaland was then a British protectorate (not a colony), the South African government immediately exerted pressure to have Khama removed from his chieftainship. Britain’s Labour government, then heavily in debt from World War II, could not afford to lose cheap South African gold and uranium supplies. There was also a fear that South Africa might take more direct action against Bechuanaland, through economic sanctions or a military incursion.[3][4] The British government therefore launched a parliamentary enquiry into Khama’s fitness for the chieftainship. Though the investigation reported that he was in fact eminently fit to rule Bechuanaland, "but for his unfortunate marriage",[5] the government ordered the report suppressed (it would remain so for thirty years), and exiled Khama and his wife from Bechuanaland in 1951.

Return to politics[edit]

The sentence would not last nearly so long. Various groups protested against the government decision, holding it up as evidence of British racism. In Britain itself there was wide anger at the decision and calls for the resignation of Lord Salisbury, the minister responsible.[6] A deputation of six Bamangwato travelled to London to see the exiled Khama and Lord Salisbury, in an echo of the 1895 deputation of three Batswana kgosis to Queen Victoria, but with no success. However, when ordered by the British High Commission to replace Khama, the people refused to comply.

In 1956, Seretse and Ruth Khama were allowed to return to Bechuanaland as private citizens, after he had renounced the tribal throne. Khama began an unsuccessful stint as a cattle rancher and dabbled in local politics, being elected to the tribal council in 1957. In 1960 he was diagnosed with diabetes.

In 1961, however, Khama leapt back onto the political scene by founding the nationalist Bechuanaland Democratic Party. His exile gave him an increased credibility with an independence-minded electorate, and the BDP swept aside its Socialist and Pan-Africanist rivals to dominate the 1965 elections. Now Prime Minister of Bechuanaland, Khama continued to push for Botswana's independence, from the newly established capital of Gaborone. A 1965 constitution delineated a new Botswana government, and on 30 September 1966, Botswana gained its independence, with Khama acting as its first President. In 1966 Elizabeth II appointed Khama Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.


Statue of Khama outside the Botswana Parliament building

At the time of its independence in 1966, Botswana was the world's third-poorest country, even poorer than most other African countries.[7][8][9][10][11] Its infrastructure was poor, with only 12 kilometres of paved roads, and it was highly uneducated, with only 22 university graduates and 100 secondary school graduates.[12] Khama set out on a vigorous economic programme intended to transform it into an export-based economy, built around beef, copper and diamonds. The 1967 discovery of Orapa’s diamond deposits aided this programme. However, other African countries have had abundant resources and still proved poor.[7] Khama instituted strong measures against corruption, the bane of so many other newly independent African nations. Unlike other countries in Africa, his administration adopted market-friendly policies to foster economic development. Khama promised low and stable taxes to mining companies, liberalized trade, and increased personal freedoms. He maintained low marginal income tax rates to deter tax evasion and corruption.[10] He upheld liberal democracy and non-racism in the midst of a region embroiled in civil war, racial enmity and corruption.[13] The small public service was transformed into an efficient and relatively corruption-free bureaucracy with workers hired based on merit. Calls to immediately "indigenize" the bureaucracy were resisted, with foreign expatriates working in the bureaucracy retained until suitably qualified locals could be found to replace them, and with international advisers and consultants freely used. Mining companies were encouraged to search the country for more resources, leading to the discovery of additional copper, nickel, and coal deposits.[12]

Between 1966 and 1980 Botswana had the fastest growing economy in the world.[14] This growth was primarily driven by mining, and the government moved to secure itself greater revenue. The customs union between Botswana and South Africa was renegotiated in 1969, with the government of Botswana securing for itself a greater share of the mining revenue, and in 1975, once it became clear how productive these mines were, the government again renegotiated the diamond mining agreement to guarantee itself 50% of the revenues. By the mid-1970s, Botswana had a budget surplus. The government used these revenues to heavily invest the expansion of infrastructure, health care, and the education system, resulting in further economic development. In particular, the government invested in other sources of economic growth. The cattle industry was heavily subsidized, with the government nationalizing the country's lone slaughterhouse and building two more, heavily subsidizing veterinary services, vaccines, and cattle fence construction, and setting up the Botswana Meat Commission as the sole seller of beef in the country, setting prices and selling beef to regional and international markets. With Khama's direct intervention, it negotiated a lucrative trade deal with the European Economic Community, gaining prices far above world levels. The Botswana Development Corporation was established in 1970 to attract foreign investment in crop agriculture, tourism, and secondary industries. In 1976, the Botswana pula was introduced, replacing the South African rand as the national currency.[12][15]

Due to Khama's dedication to development, very little was spent on defense, and a small military police force was initially formed in place of an army.[16] However, following repeated incursions by South African and Rhodesian forces, the Botswana Defence Force was formed in 1977 as a small professional military.

On the foreign policy front, Khama exercised careful politics and did not allow militant groups to operate from within Botswana. According to Richard Dale "The Khama government had authority to do so by virtue of the 1963 Prevention of Violence Abroad act, and a week after independence, Sir Seretse Khama announced before the National Assembly his government’s policy to insure that Botswana would not become a base of operations for attacking any neighbour".[17] Shortly before his death, Khama would play major roles in negotiating the end of the Rhodesian civil war and the resulting creation and independence of Zimbabwe, and the creation of the Southern African Development Co-ordination Conference.[18]


For a number of years leading up to his death, Khama's health deteriorated. He suffered from heart and kidney ailments, and developed diabetes. In 1976, he underwent a heart operation to install a pacemaker in Johannesburg, and from then on, frequently flew to London for medical treatment. In June 1980, he flew to London, where doctors diagnosed him with fatal pancreatic cancer, and he was flown home after it was determined that nothing could be done to cure it.[19][20]

On 13 July 1980, Khama died of pancreatic cancer at age 59.


Following his death, he was succeeded by Vice President Quett Masire. Forty thousand people paid their respects while his body lay in state in Gaborone. He was buried in the Royal Cemetery on a hill in Serowe, Central District.[21]

Twenty-eight years after Khama's death, his son Ian succeeded Festus Mogae as the fourth President of Botswana; in the 2009 general election he won a landslide victory in which a younger son, Tshekedi Khama, was elected as a parliamentarian from Serowe North West.

Sir Seretse Khama International Airport is Botswana's main airport. It was named after Khama and opened in 1984.


  1. ^ "The Order of the Companions of OR Tambo in Gold". 
  2. ^ Parsons, Neil. "Sir Seretse Khama". University of Botswana History Department website. Retrieved 28 April 2012. 
  3. ^ Redfern, John (1955). "An appeal". Ruth and Seretse: "A Very Disreputable Transaction". London: Victor Gollancz. p. 221. The British government knew well enough, throughout the dispute, that the Union [of South Africa]'s Nationalist Government was playing up the theme of the protectorates, and that it was within the Union's power to apply economic sanctions at any time. (The latest available figures show that more than half the cattle exported from Bechuanaland go to the Union...) 
  4. ^ Rider, Clare (2003). "The "Unfortunate Marriage" of Seretse Khama". The Inner Temple Yearbook 2002/2003. Inner Temple. Archived from the original on 19 July 2006. Retrieved 6 August 2006.  "Under the provisions of the South Africa Act of 1909, the Union laid claim to the neighbouring tribal territories and, as the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations pointed out to the Cabinet in 1949, the 'demand for this transfer might become more insistent if we disregard the Union government's views'. He went on, 'indeed, we cannot exclude the possibility of an armed incursion into the Bechuanaland Protectorate from the Union if Serestse were to be recognised forthwith, while feeling on the subject is inflamed'."
  5. ^ Rider, Clare (2003). "The "Unfortunate Marriage" of Seretse Khama". The Inner Temple Yearbook 2002/2003. Inner Temple. Archived from the original on 19 July 2006. Retrieved 6 August 2006.  "Since, in their opinion, friendly and co-operative relations with South Africa and Rhodesia were essential to the well-being of the Bamangwato Tribe and the whole of the Protectorate, Serestse, who enjoyed neither, could not be deemed fit to rule. They concluded: 'We have no hesitation in finding that, but for his unfortunate marriage, his prospects as Chief are as bright as those of any native in Africa with whom we have come into contact'."
  6. ^ Redfern, John (1955). "The mean marquis". Ruth and Seretse: "A Very Disreputable Transaction". London: Victor Gollancz. p. 189. Some sections of the press attacked him, the Daily Express with especial force: ... "For the nation's good, Lord Salisbury's first deed as Commonwealth Relations Secretary should be his last." 
  7. ^ a b James Haskins, Jim Haskins. African Heroes. p. 126. 
  8. ^ Robert Guest (2004). The Shackled Continent. ISBN 978-1588342140. 
  9. ^ "Economic Freedom, Not More Aid, will Transform Africa". Fraser Institute. 2002. 
  10. ^ a b Marian L. Tupy (14 May 2008). "Botswana and Zimbabwe: A Tale of Two Countries". 
  11. ^
  12. ^ a b c
  13. ^ A glimpse of Seretse Khama's legacy
  14. ^ Acemoglu, D., S. Johnson and J.A. Robinson. 2003. “An African Success Story: Botswana.” Chapter 4 in 14 in D. Rodrik (Ed.). 2003. In Search of Prosperity: Analytical Narratives on Economic Growth. Princeton: Princeton University Press. pp. 80-119.
  15. ^
  16. ^ Botswana president may seek defence aid during visit
  17. ^ Dale, Richard. Botswana's Search for Autonomy in Southern Africa. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1995: 50
  18. ^
  19. ^ Botswana's president weakens
  20. ^ Botswana president reported near death
  21. ^ Tlou, Thomas; Parsons, Neil; Henderson, Willie (1995). Seretse Khama, 1921–1980. Braamfontein: Macmillan Boleswa. pp. 391–2. ISBN 99912-60-31-5. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Mungazi, Dickson (2004). We Shall Not Fail: Values In The National Leadership Of Seretse Khama, Nelson Mandela And Julius Nyerere. Africa World Press. ISBN 1-59221-250-6. 
  • Dutfield, Michael (1990). A Marriage of Inconvenience: Persecution of Ruth and Seretse Khama. HarperCollins. ISBN 0-04-440793-9.  From the 1990 film of the same name.
  • Williams, Susan. 2006. Colour Bar. Allen Lane. ISBN 0-7139-9811-3
  • Seager, Alan. 2005. The Shadow of a Great Rock. Connah’s Quay, Flintshire, England: I & D Books/ the author
  • "Seretse Khama" by Neil Parsons, Willie Henderson and Thomas Tlou in 1995
  • Murdock Larsson, Clotye (1965). "Chapter 22 - An African Abdication - by Seretse Khama". Marriage across the Color Line. Johnson Pub. Co. pp. 173–182. ISBN 978-0-87485-014-7. "If you bring this white woman, the tribe will scatter and you will be the Chief only of the bare poles in the market places." So spoke Bathoen, a sub-chief, who, like my uncle, Tshekedi, believed that I should forfeit my position as Chief-Designate rather than bring a white queen to our land.  External link in |title= (help)

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
New office
President of Botswana
Succeeded by
Quett Masire