Biography, Achievements & Quotes of Seretse Khama, the First President of Botswana

Botswana’s first prime minister and later first president, Sir Seretse Khama was a very influential statesman who left an indelible mark on the lives of his people. In addition to fighting for independence for his country, Seretse Khama had to constantly fend off critics of his interracial marriage to English-born Ruth Williams.

The very astute leader went on to serve his country from 1966 until his death in 1980. By and large, his presidency helped transform the economic and social fortunes of Botswana.

Sir Seretse Khama, First President of Botswana

Quick Facts about Sir Seretse Khama

Born: Seretse Goitsbeng Maphiri Khama

Date and Place of Birth: July 1, 1921; Serowe, British Protectorate of Bechuanaland (Modern day Botswana)

Date and Place of Death: July 13, 1980 in Gaborone, Botswana

Parents: Queen Tebogo Kebailele and Sekgoma Khama II

Spouse: Ruth Williams Khama

Children: Jacqueline Khama, Ian Khama, Tshekedi Khama II, Anthony Khama

Education: Fort Hare College, South Africa; Balliol College, Oxford, England; the Inner Temple, London, England.

Political Party: Botswana Democratic Party

Elected office: First prime minister (1965 -1966) and president of post-colonial Botswana (1966 -1980)

Most Known For: Botswana’s most famous statesman and founder of the Republic of Botswana.

Most Notable Quote: I think that the trouble we now face in the world is caused mainly by the refusal to try and see another man’s point of view, to try and persuade by example — and the refusal to meet a rather passionate desire to impose your own will upon others, either by force or other means. 

Birth and Early Childhood

Born Seretse Goitsbeng Maphiri Khama on July 1, 1921, this future president of Botswana grew up in Serowe, British Protectorate of Bechuanaland (modern day Botswana).

Seretse came from a family of royals. His grandfather, Khama III (1837- 1923), was the Kgosi (chief) of Bama-Ngwato people. Kgama was very influential chief in the country. Owing to his efforts, skirmishes with the Boers were brought under control.

Seretse’s parents were Tebogo Kebailele and Sekgoma Khama II. His father, Sekgoma, inherited the throne from Kgama III in 1923. However, two years into his reign, Sekgoma II died. The throne then passed onto his four-year-old Seretse. Prior to attaining the age of maturity, his uncle Tshekedi Khama served as regent of Bamangwato tribe.

Education

Due to the close cultural and political ties between Bechuanaland and South Africa, Seretse was enrolled at Fort Hare College. He was 23 years of age by then. A year later, he secured an admission to study law at Balliol College, Oxford, England.

Interracial Marriage

Seretse and his wife Ruth Khama

While at Oxford, Seretse and an English woman by name Ruth William grew fond of each other. Ruth was an office assistant at Lloyd’s. A year into their relationship, the couple decided to get married. The marriage, which took place in September 1948, was met with a lot of scorn in the southern part of Africa. It happened around the time when Apartheid in South Africa was picking up momentum. There were even racist laws by then banning interracial marriages in South Africa.

The fact that Seretse was a famous king in southern Africa compounded the problem even further. Politicians in London were worried of an all-out war breaking between South Africa and Bechuanaland. They also did not want to sour their relationship with the Apartheid South African government for fear of losing the wealth that was generated from the resource-rich mines in South Africa.

It was an extremely delicate situation. Socially, Seretse came under intense public scrutiny from both sides. A number of family members vowed to destroy the union between Seretse and Ruth. For example, Seretse’s uncle Regent Tshekedi did not give his blessings to their union.

It was an uphill struggle trying to convince his own people to accept Ruth. Many people from Bama-Ngwato started questioning whether Seretse was the right man to rule them. The backlash sort off subsided once Seretse became Kgosi (chief) on June 21, 1949.

Shortly after his coronation ceremony, Seretse left for England in order to finish up on education. While in London, several attempts were made by the British government to discredit and malign Seretse’s name. There were a number of investigations launched to determine whether the young king was fit to lead his people. Britain even tried to alter the succession laws of Bama-Ngwato people. Luckily for Seretse, none of those cheap attacks affected him. In the end, Britain just had to accept the marriage between Seretse and Ruth.

In 1950, the unrelenting British government went ahead to banish the royal couple from their country, Bechuanaland. However, the international community was watching. After a period of intense pressure, the British government allowed Seretse and his wife to return in 1956. There was a condition however. Britain insisted that Seretse and his family renounce their right to the crown.

Entry into politics

All those years of racial abuse and exile abroad helped turn Seretse into an icon of freedom and independence in not just Bechuanaland but also the entire continent.

Britain grossly underestimated the resolve of Seretse and his wife. Together, the couple began fighting for freedom and political reforms in the Bechuanaland. Seretse formed the Bechuanaland Democratic Party in 1962. He devoted all his time and effort to campaigning for a democratic and self-governing Bechuanaland.

In less than four years, Seretse was able to force Britain to move the running of the country’s affairs from South Africa to Gaborone. In 1965, elections were held and Seretse swept his way to victory. He was elected the first prime minister of his country. About a year later, Britain finally caved into the demands of the people and relinquished its hold on the country. The Republic of Botswana was born on Wednesday, 30 September, 1966.

Seretse was sworn into office as the first president of the Republic of Botswana. He went on to win the presidential election on two more occasions before he died in 1980.

Did you know that the Independence Day of Botswana is also called Biopusu?

Achievements during his presidency

He being once a chief and important tribe’s man, Seretse leveraged on those and united his country under one flag. He was a good communicator, communicating a strong vision to his people. All of that culminated in stellar growth figures for Botswana. Prior to his presidency, the Botswana wallowed in one of the worst economic conditions of any African country at the time. Kind courtesy to Seretse’s strong commitment and vision, Botswana’s social and economic situation was transformed.

Seretse’s presidency was also boosted by the discovery of diamond and other precious minerals in Botswana. His administration ensured that the wealth from those mines were used in areas such health, education, road infrastructure and other community projects across the country. Botswana also benefited a lot from a very vibrant agricultural industry. For example, beef became one of the leading export commodities during Seretse’s presidency.

Respected both in and outside Botswana, Seretse Khama did not shy away from lending his voice to issues about independence struggles in other southern African nations. He worked extremely hard to secure a political solution when nations like Zambia and Rhodesia (modern day Zimbabwe) fought to gain independence from Britain.

Khama played a vital role in the organization of the Southern African Development Coordination Conference (SADCC). The conference was held in Lusaka, Zambia, on April 1, 1980. Nine southern African nations – Botswana, Angola, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Zambia – attended the conference to discuss major issues facing the region. By the end of the conference, Botswana and the eight other nations ratified the Lusaka Declaration. The declaration called for greater economic and political collaboration amongst southern African nations. The Southern African Development Community – an inter-governmental organization which was established in August 1992 in Gaborone, Botswana – owes its existence to the memorandum of understanding that was championed by Khama in April 1980.

How did President Seretse Khama die?

On July 13, 1980, Botswana woke up to the sad news of the death of President Seretse Khama. Prior to his death, Khama’s health was far from being in a top-notch form. He was plagued by a host of illnesses such as heart and kidney disease. Additonally, Khama had to contend with diabetes. Eventually, Khama succumbed to pancreatic cancer. The 59-year-old’s death was heavily mourned across the country. His body was laid to rest at the Royal Cemetery in Serowe, Central District. Khama’s successor was Vice President Quett Masire.

Other interesting facts about Seretse Khama

Sir Seretse Khama (1921- 1980)

  • It was estimated that a total of 40,000 people paid their last respects to Khama at Gaborone.
  • Khama’s first son, Ian Khama, followed in his father’s footstep and became an influential leader of Botswana. Ian was the fourth president of Botswana from 2008 to 2018.
  • Botswana’s biggest airport – Sir Seretse Khama International Airport – was named after Khama in 1984.
  • In 1966, Britain’s longest reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, appointed him a Knight Commander of the British Empire (KBE).
  • Seretse’s grandfather, Khama III, enjoyed a lot of support from both Britain and the Evangelicals. The British helped keep thwart incursions from South Africa into his kingdom.
  • After the British exiled both Tshekedi (Seretse’s uncle) and Seretse from the Bamangwato territory, several riots ensued, resulting in the deaths of many hundreds of people.
  • Seretse’s name means “the clay that unites”. Prior to his birth, his father and grandfather were in a bit of a family dispute. Upon his birth, the two reconciled their differences. His name therefore stemmed from the reconciliation between his father (Khama II) and his grandfather (Khama III).

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