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Seretse Khama: Africa’s Unsung Hero

People say – show me your heroes and I will show you your future. When the Magufulis and the Mugabes of Africa are hailed as heroes and the Khamas are obscure, you know that you are in for a truly rough ride.

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“We are all brothers and sisters, and yet everywhere you look you see fighting, fighting, fighting. Except for Botswana. That’s thanks to Sir Seretse Khama, who was a good man, who invented Botswana and made it a good place.”

Those are the words of Mma Precious Ramotswe, a protagonist in the highly acclaimed Alexander M. Smith’s series of novels called No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. The series is set in Botswana after Mma Ramotswe moves to Gaborone to start a detective agency.

With neither training nor experience, Mma Ramotswe uses wits and people skills to successfully solve the problems her clients face: missing husbands, cheating doctors, and many others.

The extract above is one of many issues that the author brings to readers’ attention through Mma Ramotswe’s reflections. That’s the first of many mentions of Khama, the man whom Mma Ramotswe holds in very high esteem and the man she wishes the whole world to know more about.

While Mma Ramotswe is a fictional character, Seretse Khama isn’t. In fact, he is one of Africa’s greatest sons, one of the best role models for leadership in the continent.

Come and colonise us!

Years earlier, on September 6, 1895, three Batswana chiefs, arrived in England. Their mission was to get the British to properly colonise Bechuanaland! The British had declared Bechuanaland their protectorate in 1885 but they took no further steps to govern the region.

A high ranking British official said then: “We have no interest in [Bechuanaland]… We might therefore confine ourselves [to] doing as little in the way of administration as possible.”

But when Cecil Rhodes started threatening the land, the chiefs thought that the British would give them protection, thus their trip to England. However, such was the destitution of the land that even the colonisers themselves didn’t think that full-scale colonisation was worth their while.

By the 1930s though, the British had figured out how to make some money from Botswana through the establishment of colonial cattle export. By the mid-1960s, the sector was producing about three-quarters of Botswana’s revenues, but real incomes remained stagnant.

So, when independence came in 1966, this country the size of France was the third poorest in the world: it had only 12km of paved roads; 22 university graduates; and 100 secondary school graduates.

Then came Seretse Khama and for the next 40 years, Botswana sustained the fastest economic growth rate in the world. By 2018, it was boasting a per capita GDP of USD 7,500 – almost 200 times that of 1966.

So, who is Seretse Khama and how did he set Botswana on a path of long-term prosperity?

A grandson of a respected chief

One of the Batswana chiefs that went to Britain in 1895 was Khama of the Bangwato people, the largest ethnic group in Botswana. He converted to Christianity in the 1860s and the missionaries called him Khama the Good – for the quality of his leadership.

Seretse Khama was his grandson and a future Kgosi, king, by heritage.

In 1925, when Seretse was only 4 years old, he became the Kgosi, with his uncle as regent. He later went on to get a degree at Fort Hare, in South Africa, whose alma maters include men such as Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela, and Desmond Tutu.

Then he went to Oxford in 1945 where he met Ruth Williams at a London Missionary Society dance and they got married in October 1948.

Khama’s marriage to a white woman set the Southern African region on fire. In a region ruled by whites all around, the prospects of a popular interracial couple ruling in Botswana was anathema.

The diplomatic furore that followed later involved the British parliament, cabinet, and the Queen herself. An inquiry reported that “Seretse was an intelligent, well-spoken, educated man who has assimilated, to a great extent, the manners and thoughts of an Oxford undergraduate.”

However, on account of his ‘unfortunate marriage,’ Khama was forced to renounce his throne and went on exile. It was five years later before he was allowed to return as a private citizen where he capitalised on his popularity to lead the independence struggles.

Turbocharging Botswana out of poverty

In 1967, only a year after independence, huge diamond reserves were discovered in Botswana. Khama used this opportunity to turbocharge Botswana out of poverty. A number of factors made his presidency stand out in Africa:

One, he steered Botswana forward without conflicts that were so common in the region. Khama was a pragmatist and, as a result, Botswana spent very little on defense. A professional army was formed 11 years later.

Two, he didn’t enrich himself and instituted strong measures against corruption. Corruption in Botswana is ranked as the lowest in sub-Saharan Africa. Thus, Botswana’s natural wealth was invested in its citizens through health, education, transportation, and infrastructure.

Three, he adopted market-friendly economic policies including respect for private property. This increased economic activities while removing incentives for corruption and tax evasion

Four, he embraced democracy and the rule of law. He also made Botswana a safe place for foreigners – a far cry from what was happening in many African nations.

Five, he rejected calls for the immediate Africanisation of the public service. He retained expatriates and replaced them only on merit.

Khama died prematurely in 1980 from pancreatic cancer. Ruth remained in Botswana until her death in 2002. Khama was succeeded by his party colleague, an equally capable leader – President Quett Masire. In 2008, Khama’s son became the 4th President of Botswana.

Why did Botswana succeed?

One of the biggest questions that scholars ask is: why did Botswana succeed where many African nations failed? Understanding the culture of Batswana might offer some clues.

The tribe that Khama was chief, the Bangwato, is part of the Tswana groups that migrated from South Africa during the Mfecane wars. They currently form about 80 per cent of the Botswana population.

They are Bantus by origin, contrasted to the Khoisan peoples who had been living in the region for 5000 years.

The Tswana were once one people, with the same language and culture. All households had properties in their villages that were organised around the Kgosi’s residence.

This gave rise to strong permanent communities – 200 years ago, these were some of the largest in SSA, often with more than 10,000 inhabitants.

Politically, while chiefs were obtained by birth they ruled by competence. The Batswana say that “the king is king by the grace of the people.” Plurality and inclusivity are highly respected.

Important matters are decided communally through traditional public meetings, kgotla. The conduct of the kgotlas was – and still is – very remarkable: people voice their opinions so freely without consequences.

This culture of respect for people’s political rights, property rights, and the rule of law gave birth to the strong democratic institutions that Botswana enjoy today.

The authors of Why Nations Fail write: “How did Botswana break the mould? By quickly developing inclusive economic and political institutions after independence.”

Why isn’t Khama accorded greater recognition?

Had Seretse Khama lived long, would he have attained the stature of men such as Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew or Turkey’s Mustafa Kamal Ataturk? Possibly.

But why isn’t he accorded greater recognition while many strange characters – Mugabe, Lumumba, Ghaddafi, or even Magufuli, are very popular?

Lumumba died 60 years ago without accomplishing anything yet he is on everyone’s lips everywhere. Why?

People say – show me your heroes and I will show you your future. When the Magufulis and the Mugabes of Africa are hailed as heroes and the Khamas are obscure, you know that you are in for a truly rough ride.

Charles Makakala is a technology and management consultant based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He is available through These are the writer’s own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of The Chanzo Initiative. Want to publish in this space? Contact our editors at for further inquiries.

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