by Hannes Wessels – 

 On a continent more famous for despots and demagogues, where real statesmanship became a domain solely occupied by Nelson Mandela, we should not forget the late South African president is not alone in holding a special place in African history.

There is another African who provided a rare example of a leader who really did care about his countrymen more than power as an end in itself. While he was never jailed, he too was on the sharp end of racial prejudice, and had reason to be vengeful.

Seretse Khama was born into the Khama dynasty in 1921, the grandson of King Khama of the Ngwato people and the son of Chief Sekgoma Khama II. His country, known prior to its independence from British Colonial Rule as the Bechuanaland Protectorate, would later be called Botswana. There was no colonial conquest of Bechuanaland. In fact the British government of the day was reluctant to make any further African acquisitions but the Ngwato King badly needed protection from marauding Matabele impis under Mzilikazi and later Lobengula, and was wary of the Transvaal Boers. After appeals by the Batswana leaders Khama III, Bathoen and Sebele for British assistance, London eventually agreed to put Bechuanaland under its protection on 31 March 1885, and this led to the formation of the Bechuanaland Protectorate under British rule.After a secondary and tertiary education in South Africa, Seretse went to London to study law as WW II came to a close, and met and fell in love with Ruth Williams. A year after their meeting they were married, and this sparked an adverse international reaction. Vilification came from opposite ends of the spectrum, he was damned by both his own people and the South African government for entering into a mixed marriage.

His tribal elders were incensed by his decision to bring a white foreigner into the dynastic mix, and for the men in Pretoria the prospect of a man in a ‘mixed marriage’ assuming power in a neighbouring country was anathema. The British government was drawn into the controversy and, in a bid to placate Pretoria, invoked its powers of indirect rule, commissioned a Parliamentary Inquiry into the ‘unfortunate marriage’ and pressed Khama and his wife into English exile.

Years later, when the dust settled he was allowed to return quietly to his homeland, and he bided his time before entering the political arena with the formation of the Botswana Democratic Party in 1962. With independence on the horizon his recent travails as a victim of racism and British ‘oppression’ added to his credibility and he was easily elected to head the government in the first democratic election, leading to the formation of the Republic of Botswana in 1966 with Khama as the country’s first president.

Right from the outset Khama showed no rancour about the mistakes of the past and his rule was benign. He quickly made it clear he was serious about a non-racial state, and that his primary obligation was to his people and his country. Here he was immediately out of step with most other African leaders who relentlessly neglected their electorates to race around the world blaming the continent’s every woe on the curses of colonialism and capitalism, while leaving their people to sink into economic ruin.

The country was desperately poor and while the discovery of diamonds was a boon, it needed the wisdom of Khama to turn this resource to the country’s advantage. In a precedent-setting decision, seldom emulated in Africa, he acknowledged the limitations of the public sector in the world of commerce and particularly mining and moved prudently to structure partnerships with the mining conglomerates that benefitted the people and the investors by resisting the temptation to try and run and control the business sector. It was this master-stroke that laid the foundation for an economic boom that brought phenomenal growth to Botswana, and with it the revenues required to develop the country and uplift the lives of the poor. It was a bold and brave decision that is an example, seldom followed to this day in Africa, where bureaucrats and politicians refuse to allow private enterprise to operate on a level playing field, with clear rules and without heavy-handed interference from the authorities. Add to this Khama’s uncompromising stance against corruption and influence peddling which was given impetus by his unpretentious lifestyle, and the stage was set for a rare African success story.


Now the pages of history show that the last ten years of Khama’s rule was a period of immense regional turmoil, with wars raging in the Portuguese colonies of Mozambique and Angola, in Namibia and also in neighbouring Rhodesia. His relative equanimity resulted in a virulent response from Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia, and Julius Nyerere in Tanzania. Immense pressure from the members of the Organisation of African Unity was placed upon the Botswana president to adopt a more aggressive and energetic stance in ending white rule. Again Khama, while expressing support for the cause, took a brave and perilous stand on behalf of his people and refused to embark on any action that he considered disadvantageous to his countrymen. This brought the wrath and scorn of much of Africa upon him, but he stood fast and successfully navigated the fine political line that saw his country continue to prosper in a violent neighbourhood.

Last week millions of Africans craving justice and good governance were issued with a public warning that they will not be assuaged. The newly formed African Court of Justice and Human Rights came into being on the pretext that heads of government and senior officials are immune to prosecution, and therefore at liberty to govern as venally as they like.

“At a time when the African continent is struggling to ensure that there is accountability for serious human-rights violations and abuses, it is impossible to justify this decision which undermines the integrity of the African Court of Justice and Human Rights, even before it becomes operational,” said Amnesty International’s Netsanet Belay.

It is interesting to note the lonely dissent that came from Botswana. Seretse’s legacy lives on but sadly, the African leadership continues to look the other way.