Quett Ketumile Masire

Quett Ketumile Masire (born 1925) was a leading nationalist politician during Botswana's transition to independence. As the nation's first vice-president he played a key role in making his country a model of economic development in Africa. From 1980-1997 he served as Botswana's president.

Quett Masire was born on July 23, 1925, at Kanye, the capital of the Bangwaketse Reserve, Bechuanaland Protectorate (now Botswana). Son of a minor headman, he grew up in a community where male commoners, such as himself, were expected to become low-paid migrant laborers in the mines of South Africa. From an early age Masire set himself apart through academic achievement. After graduating at the top of his class at the Kanye school, he received a scholarship to further his education at the Tiger Kloof Institute in South Africa. During school breaks he supported himself by selling refreshments at local football matches. Despite continued good grades, his ambition to attend university was frustrated by financial and health constraints.

In 1950, after graduating from Tiger Kloof, Masire helped found the Seepapitso II Secondary School, the first institution of higher learning in the Bangwaketse Reserve. He served as the school's headmaster for five years. During this period he clashed with Bathoen II, the autocratic Bangwaketse ruler. Resenting Bathoen's many petty interferences in school affairs, Masire, working through the revived Bechuanaland African Teachers Association, became an advocate for the autonomy of protectorate schools from chiefly authority.

In 1957 Masire earned a Master Farmers Certificate and established himself as one of the territory's leading agriculturalists. His success led to renewed conflict with the jealous Bathoen, who seized his farms as a penalty for the supposed infraction of fencing communal land. When Masire challenged this decision, the chief went further by threatening his banishment. By now the public, as well as leading members of the colonial administration, looked upon Masire as an articulate critic of the dominant role of chiefs over local politics.

In 1958 Masire was appointed as the protectorate reporter for the African Echo/Naledi ya Botswana newspaper. He was also elected to the newly reformed Bangwaketse Tribal Council and, after 1960, the protectorate-wide African and Legislative Councils. Although he attended the first Kanye meeting of the People's Party, the earliest nationalist grouping to enjoy a mass following in the territory, he declined to join the movement. Instead, in 1961 and 1962, he helped organize the rival Democratic Party, serving as its secretary-general.

From the beginning the Democratic Party was dominated by Seretse Khama, its popular leader, and Masire, its chief organizer. One of the principal reasons for the party's early electoral success was Masire's energy; in one two-week period in 1964, for example, while campaigning in remote areas of the Kalahari desert, he traveled across some 3,000 miles of sandy tracks to address 24 meetings. Besides spreading his party's message, he used such junkets to build up a strong network of local party organizers, many of whom were teachers and/or master farmers. He also was the editor of the party's newspaper, Therisanyo, which was the protectorate's first independent newspaper.

In 1965 the Democratic Party won 28 of the 31 contested seats in the new Legislative Assembly, giving it a clear mandate to lead Botswana to independence. The following year Masire became the new nation's vice-president, serving under Seretse. Until 1980 he also occupied the significant portfolios of finance (from 1966) and development planning (from 1967), which were formally merged in 1971.

As a principal architect of Botswana's steady economic and infastructural growth between 1966 and 1980, Masire earned a reputation as a highly competent technocrat. However, his local Bangwaketse political base was eroded by his old nemesis Bathoen. During the initial years of independence the Democratic Party government moved decisively to undercut many of the residual powers of the chiefs. As a result, in 1969 Bathoen abdicated, only to reemerge as the leader of the opposition National Front. This set the stage for Bathoen's local electoral victory over Masire during the same year. However, the ruling party won decisively at the national level, thus allowing Masire to maintain his position as one of the four "specially elected" members of Parliament.

With the death of Seretse in July of 1980, Masire became Botswana's second president. His leadership was subsequently confirmed by Democratic Party landslides in the 1984 and 1989 general elections. Under his leadership Botswana continued to enjoy its remarkable post-independence economic growth rate of some 10 percent per annum, one of the highest in the world. Most of this growth came from diamonds, the nation's leading export earner. Expanded revenues allowed Masire's administration to expand social services considerably, particularly in the areas of education, health, and communications. Perhaps the greatest tribute to Masire's leadership was the award he received in 1989 from the Hunger Project in recognition of the improvement in nutritional levels throughout the country between 1981 and 1988, despite the onset of severe drought.

Despite Botswana's enviable record of development during the decade of the 1980s, many problems remained. Although most citizens benefited from the nation's prosperity, the gap between the small but growing middle class and the much larger number of unemployed or underemployed poor posed a significant challenge. Throughout his career Masire sought to create jobs and wealth through the promotion of a strong private sector, but heretofore the economy has been dominated by a handful of capital-intensive parastatal companies.

Another continuing challenge was relations with South Africa. Botswana consistently championed the cause of majority rule there but, while granting asylum to refugees from apartheid, refused to allow its territory to be used as a base for guerrilla attacks against its powerful neighbor. Despite this stand, the 1980s witnessed an upsurge in South African acts of aggression against Botswana. Contacts between Afrikaners and anti-apartheid groups within the country in the early 1990s, however, underscored the potential of Masire's efforts to help mediate a negotiated end to white minority rule there.

Yet this was not the only problem he faced during the turbulent 1990s; he had his people's hunger, education and welfare problems. In 1996, the United States agreed to give $203 million in aid over three decades. In September, 1995 AID (Agency for International Development) had shuttered its bilateral mission in Botswana, asserting the nation had "graduated" from foreign assistance. According to Masire, it was a rite of passage the nation had been preparing for all along. "We used to say to our donors, 'Help us to help ourselves, and the more you help us, the sooner you will get rid of us,"' he recalled.

The U.S. funds paid for more than 300 business owners to bone up on finance, marketing and other subjects. For the smallest and neediest, AID helped set up the Women's Finance House, offering training, savings accounts and loans of up to $1,700 to poor female entrepreneurs. For an example, a seamstress turned to it when she received an order for 101 outfits for a large wedding. The fabric alone cost three times what she made in most months. With a $400 loan, however, she completed the order.

Masire was the 1989 Laureate of the Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger, and was cited for his sustaining efforts to develop nutrition, health, education and housing.


Further Reading on Quett Ketumile Masire

There are no biographies of Quett Masire. Fred Morton, Andrew Murray, and Jeff Ramsay, Historical Dictionary of Botswana (1989) is a useful reference and provides an up-to-date bibliography. Fred Morton and Jeff Ramsay, editors, Birth of Botswana, A History of the Bechuanaland Protectorate, 1910-1930 (Botswana: 1987) traces modern political history but is not found in many American libraries. Somewhat dated but useful is Christopher Colclough and Stephen McCarthy, The Political Economy of Botswana (Oxford University Press: 1980).