Sir Seretse Khama: The man of the people

Sir Seretse Khama: The man of the people
Sir Seretse Khama: The man of the people

Africa-Press – Botswana. If ever there was a man many Batswana and his party, foes and friends alike, wished could live forever, that was President Sir Seretse Khama.

Everybody was alive to the fact that he was a sickly man who was in and out of hospital throughout his 59-year life yet many hoped that providence would continue to spare him.

With the benefit of hindsight, following a London diagnosis of no hope, government ordered national prayers for Sir Seretse.

At the time I was doing Standard Six at Chadibe Primary School and we had to forgo our usual school assembly to join other villagers in the kgotla for the president’s special prayers.

Young and naïve as we were, we genuinely believed that the Man upstairs would heed massive prayers to save our president. It did not occur to us (school children) that Sir Seretse was drifting into the abyss as we were not aware of the London diagnosis of no hope.

As fate would have it, death, having no respect for request for mercy even from young innocent school children, callously struck in the morning of July 13, 1980. By a stroke of a pen, death cruelly took away the life of the architect of Botswana’s fledgling democracy. The nation did not appear ready for a post Seretse life. He had indeed picked a wrong time to depart the political scene. Many recognised his 14-year accomplishments but entertained hopes and dreams of continuity and prospects of more glory days ahead. Perhaps the young generation (ma 2000) could ask what made Sir Seretse tick and enjoy almost universal acceptability.

Sir Seretse was an heir apparent to the Bangwato throne, one of the Bechuanaland Protectorate’s influential tribe, which exercised political control over a large territory stretching from Dibete in the south to Makalamabedi in the North West. But it was his subsequent choice of a white girl for a wife, which not only stirred controversy in his native land and overseas but also somewhat catapulted him into prominence.

The Bangwato regent, Tshekedi Khama in his wisdom had sent Sir Seretse, the king in waiting, to England to study law. A law qualification, it was thought, would prepare the future king for his royal duties.

While studying in London, Sir Seretse met and married Ruth Williams, a white girl. The regent (Tshekedi Khama) was stunned as his endeavour to get Sir Seretse educated abroad brought more than he bargained for. The controversial marriage, which did not conform to traditional norms, put uncle and nephew on a prolonged and bitter collision course, which finally split the tribe. As if the local Bangwato schism was not enough, external busy bodies joined the fray. The interracial marriage was an assault on South Africa’s newly established Apartheid regime, which outlawed mixed marriages.

And South Africa lobbied its trading partner, Britain, to take a stand against the marriage. And the British succumbed to Apartheid pressure. Subsequently, Sir Seretse was tricked by the British government of the time to attend a meeting in London where he shockingly learnt of the decision to ban him from his country. And he was subsequently declared unfit to rule his people. Ironically, the British offered him a plum post of governor in Jamaica, hoping to lure him away from home and erase his hopes of ever returning home. Typical of Sir Seretse, he audaciously refused the offer of employment in a foreign land and exposed the British double standards by saying if he were considered fit to rule elsewhere, then he was fit enough to rule in his native land. His trials and tribulations while in exile earned him international sympathies amongst African countries and in Europe and brought together locals from all walks of life.

The Seretse-Ruth affair, painful though it may have been, helped to fervent a spirit of nationalism in Bechuanaland. The likes of Motsamai Mpho, though later championed opposition party politics, rallied behind Sir Seretse’s cause. Ultimately after a long struggle, Sir Seretse triumphed and returned to Bechuanaland Protectorate as a private citizen. Just like King Edward VIII of England, who had to abdicate his throne in the name of love, Sir Seretse gave away his royal birthright to be with a woman who he chose to love and who equally chose to love him.

On abdicating his throne, Seretse hoped to play a low profile by simply focusing on his cattle farms and assist in tribal matters whenever his help was sought. Politics at this stage was the last thing in his mind. But Sir Seretse must have had a change of heart following the Winds of Change speech by British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan in South Africa on February 3, 1960 expressing a desire to disengage from colonial territories. Things moved fast on the local scene as the first national party, the Bechuanaland Peoples Party arrived under Philip Matante. It was inspired by Pan Africanism and Sir Seretse must have been unsettled by its radicalism. It was then that he mobilised the like minded such as Sir Ketumile Masire, the school teacher and Moutlakgola Ngwako and others to form the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP). The BDP won the first 1965 elections and Sir Seretse became Botswana’s first Prime Minister (later changed to president).

The BDP became popular because Sir Seretse engaged in country wide political campaigns giving a fair coverage of both rural and towns. He had also carefully recruited a good number of teachers and chiefs to stand for elections under the BDP ticket. Under his leadership, Botswana made significant strides on the economic front.

The economy was specifically boosted by the discovery of diamonds and copper nickel. Suddenly money was available to build schools, a critical area, which the British had neglected. Since his death, efforts to diversify the economy away from diamonds have proved futile and the economy is failing to provide jobs for all job seekers and some holding top qualifications are either under employed or jobless.

Sir Seretse is credited for building a non racial, multi party system based on adult suffrage. At the time democracy was not a fashionable path as African leaders of the time preferred one party state. And military coups were the norm rather than the exception. The BDP has monopolised power since 1966 by winning every election on offer. It is believed Sir Seretse’s enduring legacy and personal charm kept the party in power.

He possessed rare oratory skills and his mastery of English was second to none. His royal pedigree worked for his party as many could not distinguish between chieftainship and democracy. To many, the presidency was his birthright. His successors, including his son, benefited from the solid foundation of the founding president. However, opposition parties despite repeated failed attempts, are beginning to gain ground, a signal that the Khama magic could be waning.

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