History is full of people who for whatever reason, never received the credit they deserve. Sir Seretse Khama, is a man who turned Botswana, formerly dubbed as "a desert for Bushmen," into an economic success. Thanks to him, Botswana is Africa's oldest multi-party democracy, with very low levels of corruption. Despite his significant contributions to Botswana and the SADC region, Khama's involvement in Botswana's independence is unknown, especially in comparison to other prominent African revolutionaries.
Sir Khama’s Early Days
Sir Seretse Khama was born in 1921 in the village of Serowe in east-central Botswana. Khama was named the hereditary King of the Bangwato tribe after his father died when he was four years old. Until he reached the age of maturity, his uncle was his only guardian and regent.
Khama received his education in South Africa at the Tiger Kloof Educational Centre and Fort Hare University College, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1944. In 1945, he pursued a legal education in England and enrolled for a year at Balliol College, Oxford University.
The Exile of Seretse Khama
While studying in the United Kingdom Khama met Ruth Williams, a white woman who worked as a clerk at Lloyds. They fell in love and got married in 1948. His marriage to Ruth Williams sparked political uproar both at home and abroad. The locals were against the marriage, and the apartheid regime in neighboring South Africa was equally hostile to the prospect of an interracial couple running Bechuanaland.
Khama returned to Bechuanaland in 1949 to persuade his people to accept his marriage. However, issues developed after the South African government put pressure on the UK to expel him and his young family. Khama and Williams were exiled from Bechuanaland by the United Kingdom in 1951.
His marriage to a white woman and being in exile became a worldwide event. Throughout the world, there was intense pressure on Britain to reverse its decision and Britain agreed to let Khama return on condition that he relinquish his claim to the chieftainship. Khama consented and returned to Bechuanaland with his interracial family in the late 1950s.
Ascendancy to Presidency
In exile, Sir Khama became a national hero and he used his fame to get involved in domestic politics, founding the Bechuanaland Democratic Party in 1961 (BDP). He became the country's go-to advocate for the independence struggle and was elected Prime Minister of Bechuanaland in 1965.
With this position, he was able to persuade the British to relocate Bechuanaland’s capital from South Africa to modern day Gaborone. Bechuanaland obtained independence from the United Kingdom on September 30, 1966 and was called modern day Botswana. Sir Seretse Khama was elected president of the country under the newly enacted constitution.
Khama’s Contribution to Botswana and the SADC Region
Botswana was the world's third poorest country when Khama became president in 1966. The country was dubbed a "vast, trackless wilderness" with little to celebrate. Bechuanaland had only 12 kilometers of paved roads at the time, few hospitals, and most people relied on livestock and subsistence farming for a living.
Sir Khama's steadfast leadership guided the country through unprecedented expansion. From 1960 to 1980, Botswana had the world's fastest expanding economy without succumbing to corruption or conflict. Khama's economic policies were pro-market, founded on the rule of law and later backed up by large diamond reserves.
Botswana was first classified as a middle-income country by the World Bank in 1986 and later as an upper-middle-income country by the World Bank in 2005. Botswana has the longest-running multi-party democracy in Africa, with no civil wars, conflicts, or coups in its history.
His government also tried to diversify revenue streams by forming the Botswana Development Corporation, which was tasked with encouraging foreign investment in tourism and agricultural industries. Botswana enjoyed a fiscal surplus by the mid-1970s and the revenue reinvested in infrastructure, education, health care, and cattle production.
It was unusual in Africa during his presidency to have a long-term democratic election system. Sir Khama laid the groundwork for Botswana's democratic future. He was tolerant of the opposing parties and the idea of a one-party state did not appeal to him.
Internationally, Sir Khama was a crucial figure in independence negotiations of Zimbabwe, South Africa, Namibia and also the abolition of apartheid. Before his death in 1980, he witnessed Zimbabwe's independence the same year. Khama was also instrumental in the formation of the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
It's crucial to remember that Khama was far from being a saint. Critics claim that his government failed to spread the country's economic wealth evenly, and that about half of the population still lived in poverty. His administration also failed to pay bushmen who had their lands taken away. Khama made significant progress during his tenure, however, Botswana still had work to do. After a protracted fight with pancreatic cancer, Khama died in 1980 at the age of 59.
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