Khama Leads a Stable Botswana

As the first leader of Botswana, Seretse Khama provided a foundation for effective democratic rule that would last into the twenty-first century, making Botswana one of the few countries in Africa to enjoy such prolonged political stability.

Summary of Event

Although numerous African countries achieved their independence before Botswana did, many had already seen their democratically elected governments falter under coups d’état or increasingly heavy-handed authoritarian leadership. Botswana, by contrast, would prove to be the continent’s stablest democracy. Several factors favored Botswana’s political development, including its colonial experience, its ethnic homogeneity, its abundance of important resources, its carefully tailored constitution, and the quality of its leadership under President Seretse Khama and his successors. Presidency, Botswanan
[kw]Khama Leads a Stable Botswana (Sept. 30, 1966)
[kw]Botswana, Khama Leads a Stable (Sept. 30, 1966)
Presidency, Botswanan
[g]Africa;Sept. 30, 1966: Khama Leads a Stable Botswana[08970]
[g]Botswana;Sept. 30, 1966: Khama Leads a Stable Botswana[08970]
[c]Government and politics;Sept. 30, 1966: Khama Leads a Stable Botswana[08970]
[c]Independence movements;Sept. 30, 1966: Khama Leads a Stable Botswana[08970]
Khama, Seretse
Fawcus, Sir Peter
Masire, Quett
Khama, Tshekedi

Before independence, Botswana was the Protectorate of Bechuanaland, Bechuanaland governed by Great Britain, British Empire;governance which administered the country through the process of indirect rule. This meant that while Britain retained the right to govern the colony’s external affairs and to direct internal administration, it also gave to local tribal chiefs and rulers a substantial degree of autonomy in dealing with their own people and tribal areas. These local rulers were then integrated into the colonial administrative structure. One dominant tribe, the Tswana, Tswana people constituted about 80 percent of the total population, affording the aspiring nation a degree of ethnic homogeneity largely absent in other African countries. The king of the Tswana people during much of British rule was Sekgoma II, chief of the Bamangwato, Bamangwato people the largest subgroup of the Tswana. Sekgoma’s son, Seretse Khama, was a young child when Sekgamo died in 1925, leaving the kingship vacant. Rule of the Tswana people passed into the hands of Sekgoma’s brother, Tshekedi Khama, who was to serve as regent until his nephew Seretse attained maturity.

Seretse was trained in mission schools and later attended an all-black college and the segregated Witwatersrand University in South Africa before studying law, politics, and economics at Oxford University in England. In 1947, he met and later married a white woman, Ruth Williams. The marriage was opposed both in Britain, where the interracial factor played a role, and in Botswana, where Tshekedi attempted to prevent the marriage as a violation of Bamangwato custom, which required a future king to have his marriage approved by the tribe. Seretse later returned to Botswana to have his leadership reaffirmed and his wife accepted as future queen. Tshekedi opposed this, but Seretse and Ruth together proved to be popular among the people, and when the tribe voted to accept Seretse as king, Tshekedi conceded defeat and left the country. Seretse returned to his studies, but the British government decided that he would not prove a suitable ruler, and he was exiled in 1951 from Bechuanaland.

The exile ended in 1956, and Seretse, having renounced the right to rule, returned with Ruth to the colony as a private person. This would prove to be providential for the country’s later democratic development, because Seretse would turn to democratic politics as the vehicle to leadership of his country. Tshekedi also returned, reconciled with his nephew, and renounced any claim to the throne. The reconciliation healed an eight-year rift among the Bamangwato and permitted both Khamas to begin working for the common good of the people. They established local councils that increased communication between tribal chiefs and their peoples. As a result, the Tswana gained bargaining leverage in negotiations over mineral concessions in the lucrative diamond, copper, and nickel sectors. Reforms in managing the cattle industry, another major resource, were effected. Thus a combination of adroit political and economic policies during the period before independence helped to prepare Botswana for a stable future.

In 1958, the Khamas urged that the Joint Advisory Council (JAC) establish a legislative council. Working with Sir Peter Fawcus, a new resident commissioner, Tshekedi and Seretse negotiated a deal with the JAC to establish a constitutional committee to draft a constitution for the protectorate. The legislative council was formed in 1961. Political parties began to form, first the Bechuanaland People’s Party Bechuanaland People’s Party[Bechuanaland Peoples Party] (BPP) in 1960 and then, in 1962, the Bechuanaland Democratic Party Bechuanaland Democratic Party (BDP), established by Seretse with Quett Masire as his deputy. In 1963, both the black and the white settler populations in the colony supported a constitution that would not be race-based and that would include a House of Chiefs separate from legislative assembly. Legislation dealing with tribal matters would be referred first to the former before being taken up by the thirty-one-seat legislative assembly. Whites agreed to affiliate themselves with traditional African parties, and a bill of rights protected all future citizens of the country.

In March, 1965, Seretse’s BDP won twenty-eight of the thirty-one seats in the legislative assembly, and Fawcus asked him to form the country’s first government. Botswana’s new parliament was opened on March 23. The parliament further deliberated over the new constitution, which was adopted on February 21, 1966. It provided for a separate presidency with full executive powers. The president would be elected every five years by the National Assembly, whose members would also stand for election every five years. Thus the president would require the majority support of the National Assembly.

Upon taking office at Gaborone, the new nation’s capital, on September 30, 1966, Seretse Khama had already indicated the basic outlines of his stewardship of the new state of Botswana. He would accept refugees fleeing South Africa’s harsh treatment, but he would allow no subversive use of Botswana’s territory against South Africa. He would pursue a policy of capitalist development, but the government would encourage the welfare of the common people. He would be a pragmatist in both domestic and foreign policy.


With a constitution adapted to the traditional rhythms of Botswana’s society and with a pragmatic economic and foreign policy, Seretse Khama set the foundation of stability for his new country. His steady and unostentatious style of leadership set a course for democratic and republican government that would persist. Khama pursued an enlightened social policy that saw the country’s wealth reinvested in health and education and in significant capital development, which allowed his people to enjoy one of black Africa’s highest annual per-capita incomes, reaching eventually to more than $10,000 by the year 2000. From the outset of his administration, he pursued a strong anticorruption policy that contributed to the nation’s healthy economic growth.

In foreign policy, Khama avoided antagonizing the white minority regime in South Africa, whose cooperation was essential to Botswana’s economic development. Nevertheless, he joined other black African governments in pursuing strategies to lessen their dependence on South Africa, and he was involved in the historic efforts to bring peace to Rhodesia, which eventually led to the independence of Zimbabwe.

Khama’s prudent and successful leadership was rewarded with two subsequent terms as president. He died during his third term, on July 13, 1980, and was succeeded by his vice president, Quett Masire, who governed the country until 1998, when he, in turn, was succeeded by Festus Mogae. Stable civilian leadership has remained a notable mark of Botswana’s political development, in stark contrast to that of many other African countries, and it was Khama who inaugurated this model of responsible rule.

Though dominated by the BDP, Botswana would maintain its multiparty system. After Khama’s administration, other parties began to make stronger electoral showings, indicating that the country had developed the ability to tolerate minority party development and opposition. In the national elections of 2004, for example, the BDP took 51.7 percent of the vote, followed by the Botswana National Front Botswana National Front with 26.1 percent, the Botswana Congress Party Botswana Congress Party with 16.6 percent, and a number of smaller parties sharing the remaining 5 percent. Thus, although the Tswana remain by far the largest part of the population, the politics of the country are not dictated by ethnic factors alone but reflect the emergence of personalities and issues that typify an increasingly lively national political life in which local politics also thrive. Presidency, Botswanan

Further Reading

  • Bauer, Gretchen, and Scott D. Taylor. Politics in Southern Africa: State and Society in Transition. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 2005. Contains a useful chapter on the history and development of Botswana’s democratic system.
  • Khapoya, Vincent. The African Experience. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2004. Contains useful commentary on the leadership of Seretse Khama, especially as a leader of an independence movement.
  • Potholm, Christian P. The Theory and Practice of African Politics. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1988. A classic on African politics, with a useful chapter detailing Botswana’s democratic system.
  • Stevens, Richard. Lesotho, Botswana, and Swaziland. New York: Praeger, 1967. Includes several chapters on the colonial history of Botswana and the country’s transition to independence.

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