Sir Seretse Khama Biography: Birth, Family, Education, Marriage, Presidency, Legacy

Sir Seretse Khama: "the clay that binds"

By  | May 20, 2020, 01:28 PM  | Seretse Khama  | Top of The

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Sir Seretse Khama was the first President of Botswana and founded the Botswana Democratic Party in 1962. He then became Prime Minister in 1965. After Botswana gained independence in 1966, Seretse Khama was elected the first President of the country following which, a rapid economic and social progression ensued.

He was born into one of the most powerful African royal families and he received his education from the neighbouring countries of South Africa and the United Kingdom.

Controversy arose when Seretse married a white British woman in 1948, however it gradually subsided and she became popular among his people. Khama then lead his country’s independence movement.

Let’s look in closer detail at the incredible life of Sir Seretse Khama:

Seretse Khama Birth and Family

Seretse Khama was born in Serowe, Bechuanaland on 1 July 1921. His parents were Queen Tebogo and Sekgoma Khama the second. His name means “the clay that binds”. It was given to him in celebration of his father and grandfathers reconciliation. In 1925 his father passed away and at the age of 4, Seretse became king under the guidance of his uncle Tshekedi Khama.

Seretse Khama
He was married to Ruth Williams from 1948 to 1980 and they had 4 children together, Jacqueline Khama, Ian Khama, Tshekedi Khama the second and Anthony Khama.

Seretse Khama Education

Seretse Khama spent most of his young life in Tiger Kloof Educational Institution in South Africa. He attended Fort Hare University College in the same region and graduated with a B.A in 1944. He also studied for a year at Balliol College, Oxford and finally studied to become a Barrister at the Inner Temple in London in 1946.

Seretse Khama Marriage

Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams met in June of 1947. She was an English clerk at Lloyd’s of London. After courting for a year, they were married. Their union sparked an uproar due to it being an interracial marriage. The South African Union, having already established the apartheid regime, became greatly alarmed by this action as did the tribal elders of the Bamangwato, who were angered that he did not choose one of their women. Seretse Khama was demanded to return to Bechuanaland by his uncle, Tshekedi Khama. He insisted on an annulment of the young couples marriage.

Seretse Khama and wife Ruth Williams

Seretse returned to Serowe, however, it was with his new wife in tow and after a series of public meetings he was affirmed by the elders in his role as the kgosi (king) in 1949. 

Ruth Williams, his wife proved to be equally as popular and admitting defeat, Tshekedi Khama left the reserve for voluntary exile while Khama returned to London to complete his studies.
Seretse and Ruth
The marriage of Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams however, had also incurred international ramifications that could not be as easily resolved. The South African government, having banned interracial marriage in 1949 through the apartheid system, were in ardent opposition of an interracial couple ruling just outside their border. 

The couple were banned by the South African government from entering the country including Mafeking, which then operated as the administrative capital of Bechuanaland.

Ruth and Seretse

The UK was immediately pressured by the South African government to remove Khama from his chieftainship.

Conducted by the British government, a judicial enquiry was made into Khama’s fitness for chieftainship. In 1951, the couple were exiled from Bechuanaland.

Seretse Khama Presidency

In 1966 at the time of Botswana’s independence, it was the third-poorest country in the world, with more poverty than most other African countries. It had poor infrastructure, under-developed roads and little formal education among most of its people.
Seretse Khama
Aided by the discovery of Orapa’s diamond deposits in 1967, Seretse Khama set out to transform the nation economically. His vigorous economic programme was an initiative based around the nation becoming an export-based economy, built around beef, copper and diamonds.

With the foresight for improvement Seretse Khama instituted strong anti-corruption measures, a scourge that so many other newly independent African countries faced. He fostered economic development through market friendly policies. His promise to mining companies, was that of low and stable taxes, liberalised trade, and increased personal freedoms as well as maintaining low marginal income tax rates to deter corruption and tax evasion.

In 1960 Botswana’s economy began a rapid climb and between 1960 and 1980 it had become one of the fastest-growing economies in the world.

Botswana Pula

This growth spurt was accredited primarily to the mining industry in the country, also gaining and securing a significant share of its revenue for the Botswana government.

The custom union between Botswana and South Africa was renegotiated in 1969 and again in 1975, revisiting the diamond mining agreement, guaranteeing itself 50% of the revenues.

Botswana had a budget surplus by the mid-1970’s. 

Khama continued to build on infrastructure, health care and education and investing further in other areas of economic growth like setting up the Botswana Meat Commission and the Botswana Development Corporation in 1970 to attract foreign investment, tourism and secondary industries. The Botswana Pula was then introduced in 1976, replacing the South African rand as its national currency.

Khama spent little on defence due to his dedication to development of the country. 

However on persistent incursions by South African and Rhodesian forces, in 1977 the Botswana Defence Force, a small professional military was formed.

Khama was politically careful however to not allow the operation of militant groups to operate in Botswana. 

According to Richard Dale:

“…Khama announced before the National Assembly his government’s policy to insure that Botswana would not become a base of operations for attacking any neighbour.” 

Seretse Khama Legacy

Several years before he died, Seretse Khama suffered with various ailments. He passed away on the 13th July 1980 from pancreatic cancer at the age of 59.

He was succeeded by Vice President Quett Masire

During a time where the country was embroiled in racial enmity, corruption and civil war, Khama upheld liberal democracy and non-racism. Seretse Khama embraced the letter of the law, spearheading Botswana forward economically and democratically.

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