Khama and the making of a sovereign nation (Part 1)

Icons: Former Zambian president, Kenneth Kaunda and Khama enjoy a light moment
Icons: Former Zambian president, Kenneth Kaunda and Khama enjoy a light moment

On the afternoon of November 11, 1970, in Uppsala, Sweden, the late founding president SIR SERETSE KHAMA delivered a moving address on the Republic’s fight for sovereignty, the process of nation building and his vision for the future. Herebelow, Khama speaks in his own words

In my address this afternoon, I shall seek to demonstrate how Botswana, whose claim to genuine independence was still questioned less than ten years ago, has emerged as an independent sovereign democracy, capable of making its own distinctive contribution to progress in Southern Africa. No one, I think, would challenge the view that at Independence, our prospects looked bleak and discouraging.

You are aware of our geographical position, hemmed in between the minority-ruled territories of Rhodesia and South-West Africa and South Africa itself, with only a narrow and disputed frontier with independent Africa. You will know that our population is sparse, that our rainfall is at best low and always problematic.

Your may also be aware that it was only on the eve of independence that the administrative centre of the protectorate, as it then was, was transferred from Mafeking in South Africa to Gaborone. This fact serves to symbolise the tardy recognition of the colonial power that the Bechuanaland Protectorate had an independent role to play in African affairs.


For years the question of whether or not the Protectorate should be incorporated in South Africa hung in the balance, and it was only when the direction of South Africa’s policies became unmistakable that the most meagre efforts began to be made to prepare the territory for independence. In 1963, two years before self-government and three years before independence, the distinguished British Africanist, Lord Hailey, took a distinctly gloomy view of our future. After describing the traditional political structure, he wrote:-

“It will…require a considerable measure of re-adjustment to create out of the existing Legislature of the territory a body complying with the standards necessary to any form of responsible government….. the Bechuana Protectorate, with its extensive area of approximately 223,000 square  miles of relatively arid pasture, is in a financial sense the most unfavourably situated of the three territories and is entirely dependent on outside financial aid for executing any considerable measure of development. The possibility of mineral resources, of which a survey is now being undertaken after a delay of many years due to conflicting tribal claims, is still very doubtful.”

And speaking of all three High Commission Territories, Hailey concluded:

“Whatever view we take of (their) capacity for self-rule, if they remain unwilling to join the ranks of the Satellites of the Republic, they must continue under the control of Great Britain. What would it profit the small peoples of the Territories if they now loose their hold on the solid fact of liberty under British rule, in order that they may grasp at the fantasy of Independence.”

Three years after Hailey’s words were published, the independent Republic of Botswana was born.

There were, of course, a few who took a less gloomy view of our prospects than Lord Hailey, but I have quoted his words at some length because they illustrate vividly the kind of political, economic and psychological problems we have had to struggle to overcome. This then was the point of departure. The basic physical and social infrastructure was sadly deficient if not almost totally lacking.

Roads and telecommunications, water and power supplies were totally inadequate to provide a base for industrial development. Most important of all, the Colonial Government failed to recognise the need to educate and train our people so they could run their own country. Not one single secondary school was completed by the Colonial Government during the whole seventy years of British rule. Nor did we inherit any properly equipped institutions for vocational training even at the lowest level of artisan skills. The administration had at its disposal only the most rudimentary information on our national resources. The country was largely unmapped.

On the threshold of independence, as I told Botswana’s first National Assembly in my dissolution speech, “we were in the humiliating, but essentially challenging position, of not knowing the basic facts on which to found our plans for the future”.

I do not stress this classic picture of under-development because I want to reproach the British Government. Their recognition of our independent role may have come tardily but British financial aid and technical assistance has made a fundamental contribution to safeguarding our independence.

Nor have any political strings been attached to this assistance, despite our disagreements with Britain over certain aspects of their Southern African policy. There has never been a suggestion that aid should be used to whip us into line. Nor is my description of the situation in which we found ourselves at independence intended to convey an appeal for sympathy or a desire to identify scapegoats. I am not apologetic about the progress we have made since self-government with the generous assistance of friendly countries, including, of course, Sweden. Rather, I am concerned that you should understand how far we have travelled and the path we have taken.

You will then be better able to understand the directions we are taking in the future and assess our chances of progress towards our stated goals.

Because of past neglect, the administration machine we inherited at independence was defective and ill-equipped to meet the challenge of development. Above all it was very largely staffed by expatriates from Britain and South Africa. Now while many of these men were able and dedicated and ready to identify with our aspirations, others were sceptical of our chances and less than enthusiastic in their support of our policies.

Finally, because of the low level of education in Botswana, the nature of traditional society, the scattered population and the relative isolation of Botswana from the rest of Africa, there was a low level of political consciousness among our people – if by political consciousness one means the understanding and determination to express political and social ideas through modern political institutions.

So far I have painted a gloomy picture. This gloomy impression will be enhanced if I say that we attained our independence at the height of a period of crippling drought. What then were our assets? They were I think three.

First was the hope of mineral discoveries which would eventually provide a source of revenue to reduce and finally end our dependence on external aid. Second was our boundary with Zambia which provided a physical and psychological link with our brothers in independent Africa. Third and most important was the character of Batswana. Even before the establishment of the Protectorate Batswana recognised whence the real and long term threat to their independence would come.

And the refusal to accept absorption by South Africa or Rhodesia which characterised the colonial period, lives on the dogged determination to ensure that Botswana develops as independently as possible of our minority-ruled neighbours. We are equally determined to remain true to our guiding principles despite the difficulties of our situation. Furthermore, although, as I have said, political consciousness in the conventional modern sense developed late among Batswana, the sturdy tradition of democracy which survived the distorting pattern of indirect rule has served us well in developing our national sense of purpose.

For many African countries, independence came only after a struggle which sometimes, as in Kenya, involved violence. Botswana’s political independence was peacefully negotiated. Our struggle is the struggle to make a reality of that political independence and it is this struggle on which we are now wholeheartedly engaged.

The methods of this struggle differ from those of the struggle for independence. Our revolution is peaceful and positive in its goals.

But it nonetheless real for consisting of small victories over the ever-present enemies – poverty, ignorance and disease. Nor do we regard it as a struggle for ourselves alone, but a contribution to the establishment of self-determination and non-racial democracy throughout Southern Africa.

Such a struggle must have a strategy. A programme of economic, social and political advancement must be based on certain principles or it will lose its way and relapse into opportunism and the mere pursuit of an expanding Gross National Product. Equally, a developing country’s principles must be rooted in practice. An idea has limited value if it cannot be applied. Many African countries have formally stated that their guiding ideology is socialism.

This label, even if qualified by the adjective “African” can have little meaning for the majority of our people. Furthermore, socialism is an ideology to which leaders as various as Stalin and Dubcek, Ulbricht and Willi Brandt, Nasser and Ben Gurion, Harold Wilson and Fidel Castro have all laid claim.

The crushing of Czechoslovakia was justified as the defence of “Socialism” and a “Socialist”-led government has found it possible to justify the provision of financial guarantees to the Cabora Bassa scheme which is designed to perpetuate Portuguese colonialism in Mozambique. Nor have the varying interpretations of “African Socialism” done much to dispel our confusion.

We in Botswana have chosen to develop our own guiding principles and describe them in terms readily comprehensible to our people. And these principles, rooted in our culture and traditions, are now being tested in practice. I want to describe these principles and how we apply them, but first let me say that although we have chosen to develop our own ideology, our nationalism and our non-alignment will not be permitted to degenerate into narrow chauvinism and isolation.

Rather we seek to identify ourselves with what is positive and humane in all national ideologies. We recognise certain fundamental values and hold them to be universal. And what we ask of any ideology or social system is that it should wear a human face. I detect the same concern in Sweden, which encourages me to think that the relations between our two countries will grow stronger.

Our principles then are democracy which in our main language Setswana is rendered by “Puso ya batho ka batho”, or rule of the people by the people, and development which we translate in Setswana as “ditiro tsa ditlhabololo” which means literally “work for development”, a significant rendering as I am sure you will agree.

Our third principle is self-reliance which is various expressed in Setswana and illustrated by numerous Setswana idioms of long-standing and our fourth principle is unity, which is also expressed in Setswana by a number of words and idioms, each with its particular shade of meaning.

(Continues in next Friday’s edition)

Editor's Comment
What about employees in private sector?

How can this be achieved when there already is little care about the working conditions of those within the private sector employ?For a long time, private sector employees have been neglected by their employers, not because they cannot do better to care for them, but because they take advantage of government's laxity when it comes to protecting and advocating for public sector employees, giving the cue to employers within the private sector...

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