Seretse Khama

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Sir Seretse Goitsebeng Maphiri Khama, GCB, KBE (1 July 1921 – 13 July 1980) was a Botswana politician who served as the first President of Botswana, a post he held from 1966 to 1980.

Sir Seretse Khama
1980, Founding President of Botswana() (cropped).jpg
Sir Seretse Khama, KBE
1st President of Botswana
In office
30 September 1966 – 13 July 1980
Vice PresidentQuett Masire
Preceded byHimself as Prime Minister[1]
Succeeded byQuett Masire
1st Prime Minister of Botswana
In office
3 March 1965 – 30 September 1966
Preceded byPosition established
Succeeded byHimself as President[1]
Personal details
Seretse Goitsebeng Maphiri Khama

(1921-07-01)1 July 1921
Serowe, Bechuanaland Protectorate
Died13 July 1980(1980-07-13) (aged 59)
Gaborone, Botswana
Resting placeRoyal Cemetery
Serowe, Botswana
Political partyBotswana Democratic Party
(m. 1948)
Alma mater

Born into an influential royal family of what was then the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland, he was educated abroad in neighbouring South Africa and in the United Kingdom. He married a British woman, Ruth Williams, which as a union between a black man and a white woman was controversial, particularly with the National Party government in South Africa as well as among the British and the Bangwato. Khama led 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 was elected as its first president. During his presidency, the country underwent rapid economic and social progress.[2]

Childhood and educationEdit

Seretse Khama was born in 1921 in Serowe, in what was then the Bechuanaland Protectorate. He was the son of Queen Tebogo and Sekgoma Khama II, the paramount chief of the Bamangwato people, and the grandson of Khama III, their king. The name Seretse means "the clay that binds".[3] He was named this 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 4, Seretse became kgosi (king), with his uncle Tshekedi Khama as his regent and guardian.

After spending most of his youth in Tiger Kloof Educational Institute in South Africa, Khama attended Fort Hare University College there, graduating with a general B.A. in 1944. He travelled to the United Kingdom and studied for a year at Balliol College, Oxford. He next joined the Inner Temple in London in 1946, to study to become a barrister.[4]

Marriage and exileEdit

In June 1947, Khama met Ruth Williams, an English clerk at Lloyd's of London. After a year of courtship, they married. The interracial marriage sparked a furore, alarming both the Union of South Africa, which had established apartheid (racial segregation), and the tribal elders of the Bamangwato, who were angered he had not chosen one of their women. 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. After a series of kgotlas (public meetings), he 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 the Bamangwato reserve for voluntary exile in the Bakwena reserve while Khama returned to London to complete his studies.[5]

However, the international ramifications of his marriage were not so easily resolved. Having banned interracial marriage in 1949 under the apartheid system, South Africa's government opposed having an interracial couple ruling just across their northern border. The couple was banned from entering South Africa, including Mafeking, which then operated as the administrative capital of Bechuanaland. Since Bechuanaland was then a British protectorate (not a colony), the South African government immediately exerted pressure on the UK to have Khama removed from his chieftainship. The Attlee ministry, Britain's Labour-led government, then heavily in debt from World War II, could not afford to lose cheap South African gold and uranium supplies. They also feared that South Africa might take more direct action against Bechuanaland, either economic sanctions or a military incursion.[6][7]

The British government conducted a judicial enquiry into Khama's fitness for the chieftainship. The investigation did not disapprove of interracial marriage as such and reported that he was eminently fit to rule the Bamangwato, "but for his unfortunate marriage", which prevented good relations with neighbouring apartheid regimes.[8] The government ordered that the report be suppressed (it would remain so for thirty years) and exiled Khama and his wife from Bechuanaland in 1951.[9]

Return to politicsEdit

Various groups protested against the government decision, holding it up as evidence of British racism. In Britain, there was widespread anger at the decision and calls for the resignation of Lord Salisbury, the minister responsible.[10] 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, both Khama and his wife 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. He became involved in local politics, being elected to the tribal council in 1957 as its secretary. In the 1961 Birthday Honours, he was recognised for his services as tribal secretary by his appointment as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE).[11]

In 1961, Khama returned to politics by founding the 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. As Prime Minister of Bechuanaland, Khama continued to push for Botswana's independence while based in the newly established capital of Gaborone. A 1965 constitution delineated a new Botswana government, and on 30 September 1966, Botswana gained its independence. As prescribed by the new constitution, Khama became its first President.[1] Ten days prior to this, Elizabeth II had promoted Khama within the Order of the British Empire, appointing him a Knight Commander (KBE).[12]


At the time of its independence in 1966, Botswana was the world's third-poorest country, poorer than most other African countries.[13][14][15][16][17] Its infrastructure was minimal, with only 12 kilometres (7.5 miles) of paved roads; and few of its people had formal education, with only 22 university graduates and 100 secondary school graduates.[18]

Khama set out on a vigorous economic programme intended to transform the nation into an export-based economy, built around beef, copper and diamonds. The 1967 discovery of Orapa's diamond deposits aided this programme.[13]

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.[16] He upheld liberal democracy and non-racism in the midst of a region embroiled in civil war, racial enmity and corruption.[19] Khama embraced the rule of law.[17]

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, and the government retained foreign expatriates working in the bureaucracy until suitably qualified locals could be found to replace them. Khama and his people also drew on international advisers and consultants. Mining companies were encouraged to search the country for more resources, leading to the discovery of additional copper, nickel, and coal deposits.[18]

Between 1960 and 1980 Botswana had the fastest-growing economy in the world.[20] This growth was primarily driven by mining, and the government acted to gain a greater percentage of its 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. In 1975, after it had become 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 in 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 subsidised, with the government nationalising the country's lone slaughterhouse and building two more, heavily subsidising veterinary services, vaccines, and cattle fence construction. It set 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. Khama also spearheaded a national fundraising campaign to build Botswana's first institute of higher education, which resulted in the establishment of the University of Botswana in 1982, after Khama's death.

The Botswana Development Corporation was established in 1970 to attract foreign investment in crop agriculture, tourism, and the secondary sector. In 1976, the Botswana pula was introduced, replacing the South African rand as the national currency.[18][21]

Due to Khama's dedication to development, very little was spent on defence, and a small military police force was initially formed in place of an army.[22] 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 was careful politically 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.[23]

Shortly before his death, Khama played 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.[24]

Khama was reelected three times by virtue of the BDP easily winning the 1969, 1974 and 1979 elections. In Botswana, candidates for the National Assembly declare whom they endorse for president when they lodge their nomination papers, and the presidential candidate with a majority of endorsements is automatically elected. He governed with very large majorities for his entire tenure, never facing more than seven opposition MPs.


Nation Mourns Sir Seretse Khama (Daily news article)

For a number of years leading up to his death, Khama's health deteriorated. He suffered from heart and kidney ailments. In 1960 he had been diagnosed with diabetes. In 1976, he underwent a heart operation in Johannesburg to install a pacemaker. From then on, he frequently flew to London for medical treatment. In June 1980, while receiving treatment in London, Khama was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. He returned home after it was determined that no cure was possible.[25][26]

Khama died on 13 July 1980 in the presence of his wife in Botswana.[27]


Sir Seretse Khama Statue at the national archives of Botswana
Seretse Khama legacy
The First Daimler limousine used by President Sir Seretse Khama

Following his death, Khama was succeeded by Vice President Quett Masire. Forty thousand people paid their respects to Khama as his body lay in state in Gaborone. He was buried in the Royal Cemetery on a hill in Serowe, Central District.[28]

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. That year a younger son, Tshekedi Khama II, was elected as a parliamentarian from Serowe North West. Ian Khama left office in 2018.

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

In 2016, the film A United Kingdom told the story of the controversies that surrounded Khama's marriage. It starred David Oyelowo as Khama and Rosamund Pike as Ruth Williams.

Khama is frequently referenced in The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency books by Alexander McCall Smith. Mma Ramotswe, the series' protagonist, greatly admires him, compares him with Nelson Mandela and very much regrets the fact of his not being so well known internationally.


  1. ^ a b c The President and Vice President. Chapter 4, Part I, Constitution of Botswana
  2. ^ "The Presidency – Republic of South Africa". Archived from the original on 20 July 2009.
  3. ^ Parsons, Neil. "Sir Seretse Khama". University of Botswana History Department website. Retrieved 28 April 2012.
  4. ^ "We pay homage to Botswana Presidents – past to present". YourBotswana. Retrieved 24 May 2020.
  5. ^ Benson, Mary (1976). "Tshekedi Khama as I Knew Him". Botswana Notes and Records. 8: 121–128. ISSN 0525-5090. JSTOR 40979462.
  6. ^ 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 ...)
  7. ^ 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'.
  8. ^ 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'.
  9. ^ "Sir Seretse Khama – first President of Botswana". BBC – Radio 4 Making History. BBC Radio 4. 22 July 2010. Retrieved 6 September 2017.
  10. ^ 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."
  11. ^ "No. 42370". The London Gazette (Supplement). 2 June 1961. p. 4164.
  12. ^ "No. 44120". The London Gazette. 23 September 1966. p. 10295.
  13. ^ a b James Haskins, Jim Haskins. African Heroes. p. 126.
  14. ^ Robert Guest (2004). The Shackled Continent. ISBN 978-1588342140.
  15. ^ "Economic Freedom, Not More Aid, will Transform Africa". Fraser Institute. 2002. Archived from the original on 20 July 2009.
  16. ^ a b Marian L. Tupy (14 May 2008). "Botswana and Zimbabwe: A Tale of Two Countries".
  17. ^ a b "This African Country Was Once the World's Third Poorest. Here's How It Turned Things Around". 16 February 2015. Retrieved 27 February 2017.
  18. ^ a b c "An African Success Story: Botswana". Retrieved 27 February 2017.
  19. ^ "Mmegi Online :: A glimpse of Seretse Khama's legacy". Retrieved 27 February 2017.
  20. ^ 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.
  21. ^ "Botswana facts, information, pictures | articles about Botswana". Retrieved 27 February 2017.
  22. ^ "Ottawa Citizen - Google News Archive Search". Archived from the original on 2 November 2015.
  23. ^ Dale, Richard. Botswana's Search for Autonomy in Southern Africa. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1995: 50
  24. ^ Boddy, Alistair. "Biography of the African Statesman: Sir Seretse Khama". Retrieved 27 February 2017.
  25. ^ "The Montreal Gazette - Google News Archive Search". Archived from the original on 24 January 2016.
  26. ^ "The Montreal Gazette - Google News Archive Search". Archived from the original on 24 January 2016.
  27. ^ Akyeampong & Gates 2012, p. 359.
  28. ^ Tlou, Thomas; Parsons, Neil; Henderson, Willie (1995). Seretse Khama, 1921–1980. Braamfontein: Macmillan Boleswa. pp. 391–2. ISBN 99912-60-31-5.

Works citedEdit

Further readingEdit

  • 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 linksEdit

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Prime Minister of Botswana
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Himself as President
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