Remembering Seretse Khama

Former President Seretse Khama
Former President Seretse Khama

Facing our National Assembly in the nation’s capital is the monument to a monumental figure – Sir Seretse khama-the founding president of Botswana. So familiar are we with the statue such that it has been reduced to a mere physical entity adding aesthetic value to the city.

As we pass by the monument when going about our daily routines, a few of us stop to think how special and unique he was, what ideals he represented and fought for and how privileged and lucky we were as a nation to have him at the helm of government in the formative years of our sovereignty.

Judging by his own words and deeds, he seemed to have been this rare breed of African leader who never sought power, but power was thrust upon him? He was a visionary president ahead of time, a man of principle who never allowed conveniences of the moment to mortgage the future of the country and place at risk the principles of fairness, justice and democracy, which he cherished so dearly.  He set out to get Botswana on the road to democracy and never had second thoughts about this choice. The political climate in the sub region did not favour a democratic dispensation.

 Botswana was sandwiched by callous and trigger happy racist and apartheid regimes of South Africa in the   south and Southern Rhodesia in the north. The whole of Southern Africa was a war zone and if Khama’s heart was not rooted in democracy, he could have exploited the unsettling circumstances of war to usurp power and usher Botswana into a dictatorship. Up north, his peers and colleagues whose countries’ independence preceded that of Botswana did not make his choice for democracy obvious as they pursued paths, which made democracy a rare commodity in the sub continent. 

Khama courageously and audaciously elected to avoid the non-democratic path chosen by   prominent and revered leaders such as  Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia. Samora Machel of Mozamibique and Hastings Kamuzo Banda of Malawi. Khama had attached so high a premium to the spirit of regionalism and collaboration and this alone could have swerved him to follow the popular and trending political direction of the time. Strangely, he swam against the tide and somewhat remained true, faithful and permanently wedded to the then less fashionable, less traversed and unchartered territory of democracy. That goes a long way to show how special and independent minded he was. 

 In addition to external factors, there was domestic influence, which also could have allowed khama to become a dictator. His pedigree as paramount Chief of Bamangwato tribe and the global publicity and condemnation he received from racist quarters as a result of his marriage to a white English lady catapulted him to prominence and in the process yielded universal sympathy for him across the length and breadth of Botswana. So Seretse khama entered the political race with this comparative advantage and this helped him wield so much respect among political friends and foes to an extent where he earned a demi- god status. This was not a good thing because it could have influenced him to drift towards dictatorship.  Yet being a man of principle he stuck with democracy and gave the will of the people precedence over alternative considerations.

In spite of enormous privilege ascribed at birth by his royal background and his Oxford education, Seretse Khama maintained a down to earth posture, preferring to be seen as a servant rather than a master of the people.  He was a man of great humility, a royal who wanted to mingle with commoners on an equal footing.  He valued collective wisdom as opposed to individual wisdom. During the 14 year presidency he strove to promote people centred power.  He had actually experienced the efficacy of people power during his tussle with his uncle Tshekedi Khama who pressured him to divorce his English wife. While many royals fought in Tshekedi Khama’s corner, it was ordinary folks who won the day for Seretse by using their numerical strength to sway the matter in his favour. His own personal experience with his tribe in Serowe made democracy a natural choice. These were his thoughts on issues of democracy and leadership: a leadership that divorces itself from its own people is a leadership devoid of wisdom and that dictatorship like tyrannical systems of government are hatched and nurtured in the minds of men who have appointed themselves philosopher kings and possessors of absolute truth.

That he was to die in office was accidental rather than intentional. Seretse always hinted to his cabinet colleagues intention to retire even though Botswana then did not have a presidential term limit.  Thomas Tlou quoted him as having said I want to retire to live in my farm at Oodi and watch the country growing from a distance.  He was not power hungry and did not desire to hang on to power forever, as was the norm in other countries. That he was prepared to share power was evidenced by the extent to which he prepared his would be successor, President Quett Masire. By the time Seretse died on 13 July 1980, he did not leave a leadership vacuum, as Masire was ready  for the presidency. A good leader is the one who can replicate himself and Khama did that extremely well.

Sir Seretse khama was not shy to take on powerful countries albeit diplomatically when he thought they deviated from principles, which undermined the will of the people and the right to self-determination.  He was a staunch critic of apartheid South Africa even though Botswana depended entirely on South African imports. He used to say our own precarious economic situation should not deter Botswana from advocating principles she deemed right, adding small a country though Botswana may be she however values her right to self determination.

Regionally, despite clear and profound ideological differences Khama used his diplomacy and courtroom language as a lawyer to bring southern Africa together and his efforts laid the foundation for long, sustainable and durable cooperation which finally came in the formation of Southern African Development Community. Today the sub continent owes a lot to the wisdom of Khama.


* Tshwarelo Hosia is the Chief education officer based in Selebi-Phikwe and a historian.

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