Botswana: Seretse Khama

Updated March 2000

Seretse Khama was born on July 1, 1921 in Serowe in what was formerly Bechuanaland. He was the son of Sekgoma Khama and the grandson of Kgosi Khama ruler of the Bangwato people. When his father died in 1925 Seretse Khama became heir to his grandfather's chieftainship with his uncle Tshekedi Khama as his guardian.

Khama was sent to boarding school in South Africa and later attended Fort Hare University obtaining a BA in 1944. In 1945 he went to England where he studied law at Balliol College Oxford. It was during this period that he met Ruth Williams, daughter of a retired English army officer. After his marriage to her in 1948 he returned home where he took over from his uncle as chief of the Bangwato. The marriage caused much outcry not just from members of his family but also from the colonial government who effectively removed him from the chieftainship and in 1950 exiled him to England.

Khama and his wife only returned to Bechuanaland in 1956 after much public protest about their exile. They settled down to lives of cattle ranchers and Khama dabbled lightly in local politics, serving on the Bechuanaland Advisory Council. Although he was respected as a man of principle he was not seen as a politician of great effect. This changed in 1961 when he helped found and headed the Bechuanaland Democratic Party BDP. The liberal and democratically oriented BDP drew overwhelming support from rural progressives and conservatives and swept aside its pan Africanist and socialist rivals.

When the country held its first universal franchise elections in 1965 (pursuant to its independence in 1966) the BDP won the majority of the vote and Khama was sworn in as prime minister and on September 30 1966 as president of the Republic of Botswana. He was also knighted in 1966.

During his terms as president, Khama laid the groundwork for an export-oriented economy based of beef processing and copper and diamond mining. This made Botswana one of the fastest growing economies in Africa. He also promoted the development of local democracy and the supremacy of the rule of law. In terms of foreign policy, Khama attempted to seek allies among the independent African states in order to deliver Botswana from its "hostage" state situation arising from its links with South Africa (including South West Africa) and Southern Rhodesia. Khama went through periods of ill health owing to his diabetic condition and in 1977 was fitted with a heart pacemaker. He died on July 13 1980 while in the fourth term of his presidency. He was survived by four children.


PARSONS, N 1999 "Seretse Khama", University of Botswana History Department.