This month marks half a century of an independent Botswana. The intervening years have not been without turmoil, but the country has emerged, writes Stephen Chan, as a model African state.

Botswana achieved independence from Britain on September 30th, 1966. In the 50 years since, it has become one of Africa’s success stories, though that success has also involved a half century of contradictions and difficulties. Its history certainly did not begin with independence. From AD 200 to 500, Bantu migrations from what is now Katanga in the Democratic Republic of Congo and northern Zambia swept southwards and, in Botswana, established the Toutswe state, built on cattle herding and control of the trade in gold, which found its outlets on the Indian Ocean coastline. There was a coin currency based on coastal shells. This made the area attractive to what became, from the 11th century, the Great Zimbabwean state, with its long line of stone cities that acted as way stations for the gold trade, as well as that in salt and hunting dogs. Ancient Botswana was part of a complex, competitive and well-organised trading system, which dealt with the outside world. Great violence came in the 19th century with the conflicts between Ndebele and Shona peoples, which wracked Zimbabwe well into the 20th century, and with the white Boer settlers expanding from the Transvaal. With this expansion, it was inevitable that the white doctrine of racial superiority should begin to affect the region. 

After an appeal by the Tswana kings for protection from the Boers, the British made ‘Bechuanaland’ a protectorate in 1885, although many Tswana people found themselves part of South Africa in the colonial map-drawing of the day. Under the British, the racism of the colonial era was still making itself felt, even as it became clear that independence should be granted. The first leader of the new state of Botswana, as Bechuanaland was renamed, would have to overcome many years of high-level obstruction.


Seretse Khama, born in 1921, occupied the throne of the Bamangwato people. This is a hegemonic group within the majority Tswana group in today’s Botswana. He succeeded to the kingship at the age of four, with his uncle as regent. Like other leaders of what would become independent African states, such as Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe, he attended Fort Hare University in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. It was then a private institution with a multi-racial policy: a rare beacon in the region. After graduation he went on to Oxford University and the Inner Temple. In London he fell in love with Ruth Williams, she with him and they married in 1948. She was white. Controversy erupted.

This furore involved South Africa and its racial policies, which attached a particular stigma to mixed-race marriages. The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act had been passed in 1949, one year before the Population Registration Act, which formally divided South Africans into racial categories. It also involved the outraged elders of the Bamangwato, including the regent, who demanded that Khama return home and the marriage be annulled. Ruth travelled with her new husband and her courtesy and charisma so won over the Bamangwato that the regent resigned. Britain, anxious not to offend South Africa, even with its increasing racism, launched a parliamentary enquiry into Khama’s fitness for the kingship. Exhausted and economically depleted by the Second World War, Britain needed cheap South African gold and uranium. It was also in no fit state to resist a South African military incursion into Bechuanaland, nor South African economic sanctions against the colonial administration there. The enquiry found that Khama was eminently fit to rule ‘but for his unfortunate marriage’. Its report was suppressed but, all the same, the British government exiled Khama from his own land in 1951. 

There was public outrage in Britain over this obvious complicity with South African racism. There were calls for the resignation of the minister responsible, Lord Salisbury. In Bechuanaland, the Bamangwato simply refused to select a new king. Even so, Khama and his wife were only allowed to return to Bechuanaland in 1956 as private citizens. He renounced the throne and became a businessman. In 1961, however, he founded the Bechuanaland Democratic Party. His persecution by the British had hugely enhanced his appeal to the people and he swept to victory in the 1965 elections, becoming prime minister. The British granted independence to the new state of Botswana on September 30th, 1966 and he became president. Almost as an apology, Queen Elizabeth knighted him.

At that time, Botswana was the world’s third poorest country. All around, there was turmoil. Zambia, formerly Northern Rhodesia, had achieved independence in 1964; but the white settlers in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) refused to accept the prospect of majority rule and, in 1965, made a Unilateral Declaration of Independence amid racist rhetoric and a promise that ‘not in a thousand years’ would there be black rule in ‘their’ territory. In 1966 the United Nations terminated the postwar South African trusteeship over what is now Namibia, but the South Africans refused to leave and instituted apartheid policies and laws as if the territory was merely an extension of South Africa itself. The surrounding countries might attain independence, but South Africa was determined to treat them as dependent territories. Resisting such determination was a hard task. Zambia, a country with 100 university graduates, became independent. But Botswana had only 22 or 21, excluding the new president – and it had only 100 secondary school graduates. In this vast country there were just 12 kilometres of tarmacked road. It was landlocked, with no access to the sea. Stronger political powers bordered it on all sides. All the roads and the railway from the time of Cecil Rhodes went southwards. At any time, South Africa could apply an economic squeeze and Khama’s new country would be strangled. A history of independent Botswana, 50 years old this month, begins with a history of delicate balancing.

Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams, May 1960

It was an act of balancing that was possible only with huge internal support for President Khama. Although Botswana had a multi-ethnic polity, Khama’s ethnic group was by far the largest. The Tswana people, 80 per cent of the population, was further divided into eight related groups, of which the Bamangwato was historically the most powerful. Khama’s royal Bamangwato blood legitimised him, as did the symbolism of his marriage, which was in itself a defiance of South African apartheid. Symbolism and rhetoric aside, however, the delicate balancing could often tilt very much in South Africa’s favour. Even when vast mineral deposits were discovered and Botswana had some economic leverage of its own, the most practical way of crash developing a mining industry was to host South African corporations such as De Beers, which became a key actor when diamonds were discovered in 1967.


As it was, well before independence, South Africa had moved to tie the neighbouring states to its economic apron strings. In 1910, the same year South Africa attained Dominion status (effectively its independence from British rule), it established a Customs Union between itself, Bechuanaland, Basutoland (now Lesotho) and Swaziland. In the 1960s, when independence came to the latter three, the arrangement continued and in 1969 was updated to the Southern African Customs Union (SACU). 

It was not all one-way traffic. SACU allowed Botswana to negotiate a greater share of mining revenue for itself. Again, in 1975, further renegotiation allowed 50 per cent of the revenues to accrue to Botswana. The budget surplus that resulted allowed huge investment in infrastructure, cattle industry subsidies and, in particular, health care. This was to be of major importance in the 1980s, when the AIDS pandemic began. Botswana fielded the most comprehensive effort in the region – with Uganda, the most comprehensive in Africa – in an attempt to deal with the disease. This would not have been possible without mining, which allowed Botswana to achieve the fastest rate of economic growth in the world between 1966 and 1980.

Khama did not rely solely on mining and South Africa. He was instrumental in securing favourable trading terms with the European Economic Community for Botswanan beef. The economy was secure enough for him to introduce Botswana’s first national currency, the pula, in 1976. Khama invested little in the army. Nor did he allow liberation groups seeking majority rule in the white minority regimes of Angola, Rhodesia and South-West Africa (now Namibia) to operate from Botswanan territory.

This discretion and caution was not to save his country from military reprisals after his death in 1980. Almost as a precursor of what was to come, shortly before his death, just after Rhodesia had become independent as Zimbabwe, Botswana joined the new Southern African Development Coordination Conference (SADCC) of the nine majority ruled independent states in the region. SADCC was meant to lessen dependence on South Africa, so Botswana then had to apply its balancing act to SACU and SADCC. But SADCC also became the consortium known as the Frontline States, those at the forefront of the struggle against Apartheid South Africa. By this time, Angola and Mozambique had secured independence from Portugal. Only South-West Africa remained effectively an outpost of South Africa. The response of South Africa was militarised: tank columns swept into Angola; destabilisation by proxy rebel groups was sponsored in Mozambique. Khama died in July 1980 and was succeeded by Quett Masire. The first reported case of AIDS occurred in 1985 and South African commandos struck Botswana that same year. The regional war for freedom had now embraced the once peaceful country.


The tenure of Masire continued the legacy of Khama. The economy continued to grow but economic links with South Africa also continued. The contradictions came early in his presidency when, in 1981, he was elected president of SADCC. Botswana was still a member of SACU and it was in 1981 that South Africa embraced the doctrine of ‘Total Strategy’, adapted from the French effort to suppress the Algerian uprising, by applying both economic and military pressure to the surrounding region. In 1982 it blew up the entire Zimbabwean airforce and sought to sponsor ethnically

based rebellion in the west of Zimbabwe. By then, Masire had acquired Soviet arms for his defence forces, to South Africa’s disquiet, but they were probably as much a deterrent to ANC guerrillas seeking to operate from Botswanan soil as to South African forces. Even so, four years of tense relationships ensued. In May 1984 Masire complained that he was under huge pressure to sign a non-aggression pact with South Africa, of the kind forced upon Mozambique – the Nkomati Accord – just two months earlier. Skirmishes broke out between the forces of the two countries in 1985 and, following the commando raid which destroyed buildings and took lives in Gaborone, the capital city, Masire was forced to declare the expulsion of ANC personnel. Gaborone was nevertheless bombed from the air in 1986.

It was military defeat by Cuban forces in Angola in 1988 that forced South Africa to abandon Total Strategy. US mediation led to the withdrawal of both Cubans and South Africans from Angola, to the independence of Namibia, to a change of president in South Africa in 1989 and to the new President F.W. de Klerk’s negotiations with Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda in 1989 and South Africa’s release from imprisonment of Nelson Mandela in 1990. For Botswana, it was a huge relief. Masire could say, however, he had taken a stand of sorts against apartheid and had suffered for it; but he also had to say that De Beers held equal shares with his own government in the Botswanan diamond mining industry. Masire stood down from the presidency in 1998, in favour of Festus Mogae. 

In elections in 1999, Mogae’s Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) won 30 of the 40 seats. It was regarded as a clean democratic exercise but it also reflected the affiliation of the dominant ethnic group with the ruling party. As long as that affiliation remains, the party cannot easily lose. Despite apparent democracy, liberal ‘freedoms’ are not always protected: the attempted removal of ‘Bushmen’ from the Kalahari occurred in Mogae’s time, as did the beginning of the effort to remove the San people from the vast

Okavango Delta. In 2005 the Australian-born academic, 72-year-old professor Ken Good, was expelled from Botswana for having given a seminar paper at the university criticising presidential successions in the country as being not truly democratic. Even a fully democratic country would have had trouble rolling back the enveloping AIDS crisis. Despite recognition of the problems and comprehensive plans and programmes to combat the disease, life expectancy fell from 61 to 47 in the year of Mogae’s accession to power. Even so, in the 2004 elections, his party captured 44 of the 57 seats.

In a country the size of Texas, with a population of just two million, the sparsity and spread of population makes the organisation of opposition difficult, even without maj-
ority ethnic affiliation to one party. It should also render the government sufficiently unafraid for its future to sanction a political pluralism that was robustly oppositional. The government, however, thanks largely to the mining industry, has sufficient resources to ensure development, to take meaningful steps in terms of ecological and wildlife conservation and even to achieve a degree of international fame from Alexander McCall Smith’s book, The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, set in Botswana; the first film ever made in the country, based on the book, was shot there in 2007. 

In 2008, De Beers and the government formed a joint venture, the Diamond Trading Company, which continued the embedding of the South African corporation in the Botswanan economy. Even though apartheid had gone in South Africa, the old ties were there, such as SACU, but now with the addition of Namibia. In neighbouring Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe has clung on to power despite a hugely disputed election in 2008. In that year, Ian Khama, the son of the first president and his white wife and inheritor of the same throne occupied by his father, came to power as the president of Botswana.

Seretse Khama and his British-born wife, Ruth, overlooking Bechuanaland, 1950.

For a half-white president to step into the shoes of a father who had defied convention and prejudice on both sides by marrying a white woman meant prejudice of a different sort. The Mugabe regime’s expulsion of white farmers from their lands, beginning in 2000, had a racism of its own, a reversal of what had occurred before. In addition Botswana, as a beacon of democracy, notwithstanding the constraints outlined above, stood in stark contrast to the gerrymandering that now marred what was meant to have been a democratic election in Zimbabwe. In the fraught months of negotiation under the South African President Thabo Mbeki, which led ultimately to a compromise government in 2009, Ian Khama and Robert Mugabe were at loggerheads. By contrast, in the 2009 Botswanan elections, Khama won a landslide that spoke not only to majority ethnic affiliation but to a personal popularity and to a genuine sense of nationhood, of a sense of heritage and self-assurance, despite difficulties and contradictions, in a changing world. And the world was coming to Botswana.


former commander of the army, the austere Ian Khama, was rumoured to have had difficulties in accepting that the civil service was not a command institution, but one with processes and consultations. His efforts to fire striking workers led to prolonged industrial unrest. But he did understand the need to internationalise the country’s economy. It could not be all De Beers. In 2009 a western donor conference pledged $1 billion to improve infrastructure in the region. Although that was to benefit several countries, the Japanese initiative in the same year to develop platinum mines in South Africa and Botswana and, in concert with Australian and Canadian groups, to develop both platinum and nickel mines in Botswana alone, meant a greater number of players in the mining sector. Sweden is also a presence in mining. Not all internationalism was welcome to Khama’s government though. The sustained campaign by Survival International on behalf of the San and their rights to live in their traditional habitat has been a thorn in the sides of both the government and De Beers, which seeks to mine in their homelands. By contrast, since 2012, women can now inherit a family home, notwithstanding customary law, in a perceived step towards greater gender equality. But Khama’s establishment of the Directorate of Intelligence and Security (DISS) with police powers, an internal agency in a country with few security problems, has been seen as an extension and consolidation of the readiness for a return to the intolerance of the Ken Good episode. It is a mixed record for Khama, but what it means is that the contradictions he must manage are more plural and more complex than those faced by his father and his immediate successors and that he brings to them a view of management not yet divorced from those of his army command. He criticised again the Zimbabwean election victory of Robert Mugabe in 2013, having himself won re-election easily in 2014, without the need for coercion or rigging. The country is stable and, although it attracts criticism, is seen as a model state in an Africa still emerging from the problems of colonialism and its aftermath. 

The perceived model nature of Botswana has meant Festus Mogae’s membership of Mo Ibrahim’s good governance in Africa project – representing in his person, and by his apparent record, the nature of emerging good governance on the continent. But the government of Botswana has never witnessed the defeat of the ruling party: its democratic credentials have never been tested by a surrender of power. The genealogy of the Khama family, as well as of the Bamangwato kingship, may be jeopardised if Ian Khama leaves no heir, although his brother is also a member of the government and occupies a leading role in party politics.

It is in party politics that change may be possible. The ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) appears to have developed factions. Khama wished his brother to become vice president in 2014, but the BDP chose instead Mokgweetsi Masisi, which suggests that there may be an inheritor of power in 2019 who is not of the Khama line. 

In addition, the main opposition party, although failing to attract a significant national following on its own, is nevertheless increasing its urban power. The Umbrella for Democratic Change won four of Gaborone’s five seats in 2014. Together with the Botswana Congress Party, it reduced the BDP’s popular vote for the first time to less than 50 per cent.

There are problems that will dominate the 2019 hustings. The global economic slowdown, including that of the Chinese economy and its purchasing of minerals and beef from Botswana, has meant a 15 per cent fall in diamond production in the first half of 2015. Electric power generation, in line with almost all the region’s states, has not kept up with industrial and domestic expansion, though tourism is increasing and a coal industry is up and running and may help with electricity production as well as diversifying the economy. But the nature of Botswana’s second 50 years may be more complicated and difficult than its first, during which it accomplished a great deal: it is certainly no longer the third poorest country in the world.

Botswana has the second highest per capita income in Africa, at $17,595, eclipsing that of South Africa’s $11,750. Despite unequal distribution of such wealth and despite the likelihood of problems to come, it is at least a legacy to bequeath to the second 50 years.

Stephen Chan is Professor of International Relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies and the author of Southern Africa: Old Treacheries and New Deceits (Yale University Press, 2012).

50 Years of Botswana

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