We left off in May-June 1961 with Seretse Khama having emerged as the leading figure on the reformed African and Legislative Councils, fora that ultimately proved to be ideal platforms for coalescing key activists around Seretse’s leadership.
For his part, the British Resident Commissioner, Peter Fawcus, considered Seretse and Ketumile Masire to be the Councils’ outstanding members. Privately he confided to Seretse that having Masire as a partner was the key to building a national movement. Masire would later recall: “Between Seretse and I, it was love at first sight.
We clicked the first day we met [at Legco]. He must have heard about me from someone.” By 1961, Fawcus was eager that Seretse play the role of the leading nationalist.
In August 1961, he found an ally in the visiting American Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Mennon Williams, who arranged a stopover at Serowe to meet with Seretse and other “prominent Bechuana.” Williams urged Seretse to end his political hesitation, in his subsequent report noting: “The British have moved slowly in Bechuanaland.
They actually are not quite sure what to do with the territory, but they have at least developed a good relationship with Seretse Khama, the chief nationalist leader...Of all the places I visited I felt the least urgency in Bechuanaland. Its slow but steady progress from tribalism to a legislative council type government seems satisfactory to all and we should do nothing to disturb it.”
Seretse finally made his move in October 1961 at a four-day debate at the Serowe lekgotla, which was held to decide whether to ban the BPP within the Gammangwato. Conservatives opposed the activities of all political parties, which threatened to undermine the traditional order.
But many younger educated men favoured freedom of association and assembly. Seretse waited until the last day. His words as minuted: “Mr. Seretse Khama agreed that the People’s Party was confusing the people and was out to cause dissension between the tribe, Government, and white inhabitants of the Territory. He said that the only way to fight the Party was for those who stood for the chieftainship and for peaceful co-existence with the white people was to form themselves into a body which would expose the falsehoods put out by the People’s Party and which would be instrumental in persuading Government to bring about changes in the administration of the Territory that might be desirable. At present, the tribe had no organisation to fight the Party and were doing nothing to stop them.
The people should unite and form an organisation with proper leaders which would be a power in the land and which would be able not only to stop the damage being caused by the People’s Party but which would be able to advise Government (on) what should be done to further the interests of the Territory.”
Members of the Ngwato Tribal Executive Committee, including Goareng Mosinyi, Nwako, G.G. Sebeso, and Seretse were the core of the envisaged party. A month later, during the second Legco meeting in Lobatse, Seretse called a caucus of all the African members of the Council.
There he put forward his ideas for a “Bechuanaland National Democratic Party.” Dikgosi Bathoen II and Mokgosi III immediately disassociated themselves from the proposal, maintaining that as royals they were expected to remain above party politics. But the others present signed on.
Amongst them was Masire, who had apparently been approached earlier by Seretse through his old schoolmate Nwako. He, along with Seretse, and Tsoebebe, was charged with drafting a constitution for the party, to be presented to a follow-up meeting at Mahalapye in January 1962. When word reached Mpho about the preparations for a new party, he called up Seretse to suggest that, as a kgosi, he should remain above politics, hinting that he could perhaps become the titular head of state in a BPP government.
Unimpressed, Seretse reportedly responded: “What you want is to grab the people for yourself”. Taking up a theme that he would never quite let go Mpho then communicated to the radical ANC-aligned newspaper New Age that the “chiefs and whites in the Territory” were holding behind-the-scenes talks for the formation of their party. Seretse was equally firm in dismissing similar arguments put forward by more conservative elements around Raditladi who had half-heartedly floated the idea of reviving the Federal Party with Seretse at its head.
At Mahalapye the constitution was approved after minor amendments. Ex-serviceman, educator, and veteran BakaNswazwi activist Amos Dambe convinced everyone to drop the “National” from the party name.
A month later, the party held its inaugural public meeting at Gaborone under a morula tree not far from the modern-day Orapa House. This venue had been hastily chosen after permission was withdrawn for them to meet at Mochudi, where they had already assembled.
The Bakgatla regent, Mmusi, had come under pressure from his conservative councillors, and neighbouring Dikgosi. Under the morula tree the Party elected its officers with the top three positions going to Seretse, President; Tsoebebe, Vice-President; Masire, Secretary and Benjamin Steinberg, a wealthy white trader, and rancher, Treasurer.