Thursday, July 8, 2010

Profile of Botswana’s First President, Sir Seretse Khama (1921-80)

source: Republic of Botswana (4/7/10) TAUTONA TIMES no 10 of 2010
The Electronic Press Circular of the Office of the President
"Democracy, Development, Dignity, Discipline and Delivery"


Profile of Sir Seretse Khama, NYB, KBE, LLD, D.LITT, PHD, MP, First President of the Republic of Botswana (30/9/66 -13/7/80)

The late Sir Seretse Khama was the first President of the Republic of Botswana. He inherited an impoverished and internationally obscure state from British rule, and left it as a democratic and increasingly prosperous nation with a significant role in Southern Africa.

Seretse Khama was born on the 1st of July 1921 at Serowe in what was then the Bangwato Tribal Reserve of the Bechuanaland Protectorate. He was the son and heir Sekgoma Khama and Tebogo (nee Kebailele). In 1923 his father succeeded his grandfather as the Kgosi or ruler of the Bangwato. His reign, as Kgosi Sekgoma II was, however, short as he died in 1925. With the death of his mother, in 1930, Seretse remained in the care of his uncle Tshekedi Khama, who ruled the Bangwato as his regent

Seretse received his higher primary and secondary education in South Africa, at two prominent mission schools, Lovedale and Tiger Kloof, before earning a Bachelor of Arts degree at Fort Hare College. Thereafter he studied law at the University of Witwatersrand and Balloil College, Oxford, before taking up further Barrister Studies at Inner Temple in London.

In June 1947, while in London, Seretse first met Ruth Williams, who was then pursuing a career in the financial sector. Their interracial marriage in September 1948 ultimately threw the British Empire into turmoil. Initially it was uncle, Tshekedi, who ordered Seretse home to demand a divorce. But, after a series of public meetings in Serowe, Seretse was popularly recognised as Kgosi together with his wife. Tshekedi then gave way and went into self-exile.

The proclamation of a black chief with a white wife, in a territory strategically located between South Africa and the Rhodesias, caused outcry among white settler politicians. South Africa had come under the control of white Afrikaner nationalists in 1948. The then Labour Party government in Britain was desperate to secure its economic as well as political ties with the new apartheid regime. It therefore quietly agreed to bar Seretse Khama from chieftainship.

A judicial enquiry was set up to try to prove Seretse's personal unfitness to rule. But, instead it concluded that Seretse was eminently fit to rule. The Commission’s report was therefore suppressed by the British government, while Seretse and his wife were exiled to England.

The persecution of Seretse and Ruth Khama received extensive international press coverage and outrage was expressed by a wide range of people around the world. Eventually, in 1956, the British finally allowed Seretse and Ruth to return to Botswana as private citizens. What the London authorities had not expected was the political acclaim that six years exile had given him back home, where Seretse Khama was acclaimed as a nationalist hero.

From 1957-62 Seretse Khama was involved in the reform of local and territorial Government leading to the establishment of a Legislative Council as key steps towards decolonisation. In 1962 he founded the Bechuanaland Democratic Party (BDP). With its call for reform leading to a non-racial independent republic the BDP was able to draw overwhelming support. It won the first universal franchise elections in March 1965, allowing Seretse Khama became the first prime minister of a self-governing Bechuanaland Protectorate before leading the country to full independence a year later.

At independence Botswana was entirely surrounded by white racist regimes. It was, therefore, widely but falsely assumed that the country had no option but to sell-out to its neighbours, South Africa (including South-West Africa) and Southern Rhodesia.

The new government, moreover, could not cover the costs of administration from taxes, and was continually indebted to Britain. The first task was to lay the groundwork for an export-oriented economy, based on beef processing and copper and diamond mining.

Between 1966 and 1980 Botswana had the fastest growing economy in the world. It also came to be seen a remarkable state with high principles, upholding liberal democracy and non-racialism in the midst of a region embroiled in civil war, racial enmity and corruption. State mineral revenues were invested in infrastructural development, education and health, and in subsidies to cattle production. The result was a great increase in general prosperity, in rural as well as urban areas.

Seretse Khama also used his unique authority to develop local democracy and curtail the powers of traditional chiefs, to develop citizen administrative capacity without over-bureaucratization, and to promote the rule of law in the operations of the state.

As Botswana progressed, Seretse Khama was also able to turn more of his attention to foreign policy, finding key early allies in Presidents Kaunda of Zambia Nyerere of Tanzania. In his final decade he played and increasingly prominent role as a Pan African statesman. He was one of the "Front-Line Presidents" who negotiated the future of Zimbabwe and Namibia. In the face of the terrorist activities of the Smith regime in particular, the Botswana Defence Force was created to guard Botswana’s borders, protecting growing numbers of refugees as well as the citizenry.

During this period Seretse Khama articulated a clear vision of the future of Southern Africa after colonialism and apartheid, as a peaceful, democratic and prosperous region. He was thus the key founder of what has since become the Southern African Development Community.

The rigours of constant travel for international negotiations, leading up to the independence of Zimbabwe, finally exhausted Seretse Khama. But he had the final satisfaction of witnessing both the independence of Zimbabwe in March 1980 and the launching of the Southern African Development Coordination Conference in April, before his death on the 13th July 1980.

Khama is fondly remembered for his intelligence, integrity, and sense of humour. Of his lasting legacy it can said that the perpetual democracy, socio-economic development, political stability and unity that Batswana experience today are what Sir Seretse Khama always stood for.

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