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Seretse Khama: a true African statesman

Seretse Khama: Botswana's first president

Botswana is the 'Switzerland of southern Africa': a stable, democratic, little known country that has avoided the tragedies and upheavals of its neighbours. For much of this, it owes a huge debt to its first president, Seretse Khama.

Botswana is two and a half times the size of the UK but has a population of only 1.7m. In the northwest is its main tourist attraction, the wetland of the Okavango Delta with its superb wild animals; the world’s largest Ramsar site. Apart from the Delta, Bechuanaland as it was known prior to independence, was a valueless, land locked scrap of desert. It became a British protectorate in 1885 at the request of three of its tribal kings, concerned by incursions from Boers and other tribes, and looking to Britain for protection

Bechuanaland had eight principal tribes prior to independence. The king of the Bangwato, Seretse Khama, travelled to England after WWII to study law, prior to taking up the leadership of his people. I have written in other posts of his marriage to Ruth Williams while there, and his subsequent exile in the UK. But a burgeoning independence movement throughout Africa brought stirrings of independence to Bechuanaland too. Seretse’s exile gave him credibility and he became the leader of the Bechuanaland Democratic Party in 1961. In 1966 British Bechuanaland became Botswana, with Seretse Khama as its first president and with Ruth as the first white first lady of an independent African state. The Queen gave him a knighthood: from exile to knighthood in 10 years. Neither Britain nor South Africa could envisage this poor country surviving and thought it valueless (it had to borrow the cost of its independence celebrations from Britain), and it was assumed that ultimately it would come under South Africa’s wing. But a year after independence diamonds were discovered and Botswana now produces a quarter of the world’s output.

Khama was a true statesman, held in high regard by Nelson Mandela, and much of Botswana's stability and welcoming character is due to him. He implemented a corruption defeating constitution that firmly kept in mind what was best for the people and the country. The wealth that accrued from diamonds was ploughed back into infrastructure. Roads became tarmaced; schools, modern hospitals and a university were built. There was a decentralisation of infrastructure too so that all could benefit. The symbolic animal of the country was the zebra and its stripes were incorporated in the flag to embody black and white living harmoniously together.

Throughout all his tribulations, Khama always kept focused on the big picture i.e. what was best for his country. He refused to be bitter and proved himself far bigger than the British colonial civil servants and politicians who sought to constrain his freedom. The obstacles placed in his, and his country's path, are detailed in Susan Williams' very well researched book 'Colour Bar': a fascinating read that paints a damning picture of the casual racism of 1950s Britain. Khama died tragically young in 1980, while working hard to manage Zimbabwe's independence. His wife was the patron of our Botswana expedition and died in 2002. In 2009 I tried to visit the royal cemetry at Serowe to pay my respects, but the day I visited the local chief, whose permission is required, was away.

Seretse and Ruth’s son, Ian (born in Surrey during their exile) became the fourth president in 2008. Much of his support comes from those who fondly remember his father, the father of the nation. Botswana faces many challenges and Ian Khama, perhaps influenced by his time as head of the armed forces, is instilling measures which he thinks are for the best of the country, but often without consultation. Lawyers in Botswana have expressed concerns about a curtailing of free expression and it will be interesting to watch how Khama attempts to move the economy more toward agriculture and tourism (both main airports are being expanded) and away from a reliance on diamonds, and also maintains freedoms for all Botswana’s people.


This is just one of the stories from my Botswana talk

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