Biography of the Week: Sir Seretse Khama

Seretse Khama was the first prime minister of Botswana, and from 1966 to his death in 1980, he served as the country's first president.

Date of Birth: 1 July 1921, Serowe, Bechuanaland.
Date of Death: 13 July 1980

An Early Life

Seretse (the name means "the clay that binds together") Khama was born in Serowe, British Protectorate of Bechunaland, on 1 July 1921. His grandfather, Kgama III, was paramount chief (Kgosi) of the Bama-Ngwato, part of the Tswana people of the region. Kgama III had traveled to London in 1885, leading a delegation which asked for Crown protection to be given to Bechuanaland, foiling the empire building ambitions of Cecil Rhodes and the incursions of the Boers.

Kgosi of the Bama-Ngwato

Kgama III died in 1923 and the paramountcy briefly passed to his son Sekgoma II, who died a couple of years later (in 1925). At the age of four Seretse Khama effectively became Kgosi and his uncle Tshekedi Khama was made regent.

Studying at Oxford and London

Seretse Khama was educated in South Africa and graduated from Fort Hare College in 1944 with a BA. In 1945 he left for England to study law -- Initially for a year at Balliol College, Oxford, and then at the Inner Temple, London. In June 1947 Seretse Khama first met Ruth Williams, a WAAF ambulance driver during World War II now working as a clerk at Lloyds. Their marriage in September 1948 threw southern Africa into political turmoil.

Repercussions for a Mixed Marriage

The Apartheid government in South Africa had banned inter-racial marriages and the marriage of a black chief to a British white woman was a problem. The British government feared that South Africa would invade Bechuanaland or that it would immediately move for full independence. This was a concern because Britain was still heavily in debt after World War II and could not afford to lose the mineral wealth of South Africa, especially gold and uranium (needed for Britain's atomic bomb projects).
Back in Bechuanaland Tshekedi was annoyed -- he attempted to disrupt the marriage and demanding that Seretse return home to have it annulled. Seretse came back immediately and was received by Tshekedi with the words "You Seretse, come here ruined by others, not by me." Seretse fought hard to persuade the Bama-Ngwato people of his continued suitability as chief, and on 21 June 1949 at a Kgotla (a meeting of the elders) he was declared Kgosi, and his new wife was warmly welcomed.

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