Sir Seretse M. Khama

Seretse M. Khama (1921-1980), first president of Botswana after it gained independence from Great Britain in 1966, was a major figure in his country's political history. He was also the grandson of Khama III the Good, who allied his kingdom of Bechuanaland with British colonizers in the late 19th century. As such, Khama carried the title of Sir Seretse, chieftain of the Ngwato (or Bamangwato) tribe.

Seretse M. Khama was born in the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland (now Botswana) in southern Africa, on July 1, 1921. He was heir to the chieftainship of the Ngwato (or Bamangwato) people, the largest of the Bechuanaland tribes. His uncle, Tshekedi Khama, acted as regent and groomed the boy to take over the chieftainship. He was schooled at home until the age of ten when he was sent to South Africa, where he attended Tiger Kloff, Adams College, and Lovedale, graduating in 1940. He received a bachelor of arts degree from Fort Hare University College and went on to study law at the University of the Witwatersrand. During his first year there, his uncle decided it was time for the young man to become chief, but Khama asked for permission to continue his studies in England, where he attended Oxford University.

A Troubling Marriage

After three years at Oxford and as a law student in London, Khama informed his uncle that he was going to marry an English woman, Ruth Williams. She was a typist with a local insurance company. Everyone but the young couple was deeply distressed—Uncle Tshekedi, Williams's parents, and even the government of South Africa, which warned the British Colonial Office that trouble would come from this interracial marriage.

The uncle's basic objection was that Khama, as chief-designate, had violated tribal law and custom by taking a wife without the prior assent of the tribe. Moreover, Tshekedi Khama was aware of the possible consequences of a mixed marriage in this exposed territory, overshadowed by its white-supremacist neighbors, South Africa and Southern Rhodesia. The marriage was discussed at three large kgotlas (tribal meetings) held between November 1948 and June 1949.

At the first kgotla, nearly all the speakers opposed the marriage, and it was resolved not to accept Ruth Williams as the wife of a future chief. Furthermore, she was not to be allowed to enter Ngwato country. More people were won over to Seretse's side at the second kgotla in December 1948, but most tribesmen still expressed hostility. By now, however, rumors (which were false) were circulating that the uncle himself had designs on the chieftainship. At the final kgotla in June 1949, tribal feeling had turned decisively against Tshekedi Khama. In a short speech, Seretse Khama asked the tribe if they were in favor of him and his wife, and most shouted their approval.

International Complications

Khama and Ruth Williams were married in a civil ceremony, because all London churches closed their doors to the couple, on Sept. 29, 1948. Approval of the marriage by the kgotla did not, however, end the trouble. The British government instituted a commission of inquiry to examine the dispute and ascertain whether Khama was "a fit and proper person to discharge the functions of chief." The British may have been responding to South African pressures. Dr. D. F. Malan, the South African prime minister, had expressed bitter opposition to the marriage and had declared that Seretse Khama was prohibited from entering South Africa. (This was a serious restriction as the capital of Bechuanaland was then the South African town of Mafeking.) It was thought that South Africa would intensify its demand to incorporate the territory, as it had long wished to do, and that it might apply economic pressures that could cripple Bechuanaland, which was utterly dependent upon South Africa.

The findings of the commission were never published, but in 1950 the British government decided to withhold recognition from Khama as chief for at least five years. During this time he was prohibited from entering Bechuanaland without special permission. Subsequently, in 1952 the British offered Khama an official post in Jamaica if he would give up his claim to the chieftainship. He refused. Pressure from the Ngwato failed to induce the British government to alter its stand.

Return Home

Finally, in 1956, Khama, who had been living in London for some years, and his uncle both renounced their children's claims to the chieftainship. That year, Khama, his wife, and four children, Jacqueline, Ian Seretse, and twins Tshekedi Stanford and Anthony Paul, returned to Bechuanaland as private citizens.

Not barred from participating in local politics, Khama soon became an important member of the Ngwato Tribal Council, the African Advisory Council, and the Joint Advisory Council. He supported a motion for the introduction of a legislative council and spoke out strongly against racial discrimination. In 1961 Khama became a member of the new Legislative Council and was subsequently appointed to the Executive Council. In 1962 he was instrumental in founding the Bechuanaland Democratic party.

Constitutional development proceeded rapidly in the early 1960s. By March 1965, after Khama's party had won 28 out of the 31 contested constituencies, Bechuanaland was granted self-government and Khama became prime minister. Full sovereign independence was granted on September 30, 1966, when Bechuanaland became the Republic of Botswana (an old tribal name for the country). Seretse Khama became its first president and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.

As the new leader, Sir Seretse Khama showed great determination to develop his poverty-stricken and drought-ravaged country. He achieved free universal education and tried to strengthen the nation's economy. His major challenge was South Africa. Despite an overwhelming economic dependence on its southern neighbor, Khama had always made clear his abhorrence of apartheid, South Africa's policy of racial apartness. He had even deported a South African citizen for making racist statements. Despite a fundamental difference of philosophy, however, Khama managed to maintain reasonably cordial relations with his powerful neighbor and at the same time preserve an undisputed independence.

In time, even Khama's in-laws softened on the marriage and often visited the state house in Gaborone. Khama was reelected to successive terms and remained president of Botswana until his death on July 13, 1980.

Further Reading on Sir Seretse M. Khama

There is no full-length biography of Seretse. Information on him is contained in John Redfern, Ruth and Seretse: "A Very Disreputable Transaction" (1955); Mary Benson, Tshekedi Khama (1960); and S. M. Gabatshwane, Seretse Khama and Botswana (1966). Recommended for general historical background are William Malcolm Hailey, The Republic of South Africa and the High Commission Territories (1963), and Richard P. Stevens, Lesotho, Botswana, and Swaziland (1967).