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Sir Seretse Khama, 1921–1980

       Sir Seretse Khama was the first President of Botswana. He was born on 1 July 1921 in Serowe, the son of Sekgoma II and the grandson of Khama III. When Sekgoma died in 1925, Seretse was proclaimed kgosi. His uncle Tshekedi Khama became regent and later sole guardian for him. He was educated at boarding schools in South Africa and graduated from Fort Hare University College with a general BA degree in 1944. In August 1945 he was sent to England for a legal education. After a year at Balliol College, Oxford, he enrolled for barrister studies at the Inner Temple, London.

            In 1947 Seretse met an English woman, Ruth Williams, and they were married in 1948. Tshekedi ordered Seretse home to demand a divorce, but in a series of public meetings in Serowe between November 1948 and June 1949, Seretse turned the Bangwato against Tshekedi. He was proclaimed kgosi, and Tshekedi retired to self-exile. White settler politicians in South Africa and the Rhodesias intimated to the British government, both privately and publicly, that a black chief with a white wife in a neighbouring colony would undermine the whole basis of white supremacy in Africa. The Labour government’s high commissioner in Southern Africa set up a judicial enquiry to prove Seretse's unfitness to rule, but the enquiry’s report rendered the opposite judgment and was therefore suppressed for thirty years. Seretse and Ruth went into exile in England in 1950. This shoddy treatment by successive British governments aroused widespread indignation and support from sections of the British press and from the public. Their exile ended in 1956 when a new Commonwealth relations minister began to distance British policy from South African apartheid.

            Until 1963 Seretse was barred from chieftainship, by which time he had become a republican nationalist happy to remain a commoner. He became the first president of Botswana in 1966, inheriting the poorest economy in Africa, one which was often dismissed as a South African or British pawn. He laid the groundwork for economic growth and sought out key foreign friends across the ideological spectrum for a liberal democracy, struggling to be as free as possible from its unstable white-ruled neighbours. He confronted traditionalist chiefs obstructing the growth of local democracy, and promoted the rule of law, regular parliamentary elections, and efficiency in administration.

            Known for his integrity and humour and for puncturing pomposity, Seretse Khama struggled against ill-health, devotedly attended by his wife Ruth. And while Botswana was buffeted by the effects of insurrection in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), South West Africa (Namibia), and South Africa, he developed a clear vision of the future beyond colonialism and apartheid. He worked hard to bring the independent states of the region together in what became the Southern African Development Community. After the satisfaction of seeing Zimbabwe achieve its independence in March 1980 and the formal launching of his organization for regional development in April, Seretse Khama died in Gaborone on 13 July 1980.

by: Neil Parsons

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