To understand Botswana, one must look deep into the past. Here, history extends back through the millenniums to the earliest presence of humanity on the planet, when humans took their first footsteps on the savannahs of southern and eastern Africa. Developing rudimentary tools, these people hunted and gathered across the abundant plains, moving seasonally over grassland and scrub in and around the extensive wetlands that once covered the north of the country.
By the Middle Stone Age, which lasted until 20,000 years ago, the Boskop, the primary human group in Southern Africa, had progressed into an organised hunting and gathering society. They are thought to be the ancestors of the modern-day San.
Archaeological evidence and rock art found in the Tsodilo Hills place these hunter-gatherers in shelters and caves throughout the region from around 17,000 BCE. The paintings that gave expression to the natural world in which they lived attest to their increasing level of sophistication – clumsy stone tools gave way to bone, wood and, eventually, iron implements. Better tools meant more efficient hunting, which allowed time for further innovation, personal adornment and artistic pursuits such as the emerging craft of pottery.
Such progress prompted many of these hunter-gatherers to adopt a pastoral lifestyle – sowing crops and grazing livestock on the exposed pastures of the Okavango Delta and the Makgadikgadi lakes. Some migrated west into central Namibia, and by 70 BCE some had even reached the Cape of Good Hope.
Following the fragmented trail of ancient pottery, archaeologists and anthropologists have been able to piece together the complex, criss-crossing migration of different ethnic groups into Southern Africa. From CE 200 to 500, Bantu-speaking farmers began to appear on the southern landscape from the north and east. To begin with, relations between the San and Khoekhoen appear to have been cordial, and the groups mixed freely, traded and intermarried. After all, there was much to learn from each other. The farmers brought with them new political systems, and superior agricultural and metalworking skills. In the Tswapong Hills, near Palapye, there’s evidence of an early iron-smelting furnace that dates back to CE 190. One of the earliest and most powerful Bantu groups to settle in the region was the Sotho-Tswana, who consisted of three distinct entities: the Northern Basotho (or Pedi), who settled in the Transvaal of South Africa; the Southern Basotho of Lesotho; and the Western Basotho (or Batswana), who migrated north into Botswana.
Cattle herders began arriving from Zimbabwe around CE 600, and in the 13th century most of eastern Botswana came within the sphere of influence of Great Zimbabwe, one of Africa’s most legendary ancient kingdoms. Between the 13th and 15th centuries, Great Zimbabwe incorporated many chiefdoms of northeastern Botswana, and the region was still part of Zimbabwe-based dynasties several hundred years later.
The only other significant migrations into Botswana were those of the Herero in the late 19th century. Faced with German aggression in Namibia, they fled eastward, settling in the northwestern extremes of Botswana.
Rise of the Tswana
One of the most significant developments in Botswana’s human history was the evolution of the three main branches of the Tswana ethnic group during the 14th century. It’s a typical tale of family discord, where three brothers – Kwena, Ngwaketse and Ngwato – broke away from their father, Chief Malope, to establish their own followings in Molepolole, Kanye and Serowe respectively. These fractures probably occurred in response to drought and expanding populations eager to strike out in search of new pastures and arable land.
The Ngwato clan split further in the late 18th century, following a quarrel between Chief Khama I and his brother Tawana, who subsequently left Serowe and established his chiefdom in the area around Maun. The four major present-day Batswana groups – the Batawana, Bakwena, Bangwaketse and Bangwato – trace their ancestry to these splits and Botswana’s demographic make-up owes much to the dispersal of the various groups.
As people fanned out across Southern Africa, marking out their territories of trade and commerce, the peaceful fragmentation of the past became increasingly difficult. By the 1700s villages were no longer small, open affairs but fortified settlements situated on strategic, defensive hilltops. This antagonistic mood was exacerbated by the increasing trade in ivory, cattle and enslaved people, which prompted raids and counterraids between powerful tribes eager to gain control over these lucrative resources.
The most prominent aggressor was the Zulu warlord Shaka, the new chief of the Zulu confederation. From his base in Natal he launched a series of ruthless campaigns aimed at forcibly amalgamating or destroying all tribes and settlements in his way. By 1830 the Bakwena and Bangwato areas had been overrun, and survivors had started the difaqane (literally ‘the scattering’ or exodus). In Shaka’s wake came his equally ruthless Ndebele general, Mzilikazi, who continued to send raiding parties into the villages of Botswana and forced villagers to flee as far as Ghanzi and Tshane in the heart of the Kalahari. His troops also defeated the Bangwaketse, who fled into the desert, finally settling near Letlhakeng.
The Tswana states of Ngwaketse, Kwena and Ngwato were only reconstituted in the 1840s after the ravages of the difaqane had passed. Realising from their experience that their divided nation was vulnerable to attack, they began to regroup under the aegis of King Segkoma I.
These new states were then organised into wards under their own chiefs, who then paid tribute (based on labour and cattle) to the king. Botswana may have begun to unite, but the states were also highly competitive, vying with each other for the increasing trade in ivory and ostrich feathers being carried down new roads to the Cape Colony in the south. Those roads also brought Christian missionaries into Botswana for the first time and enabled the Boer trekkers to begin their migrations further north.
The Boers & the British
While Mzilikazi was wreaking havoc on the Batswana and missionaries were busy trying to convert the survivors to Christianity, the Boers were feeling pressured by their British neighbours in the Cape. The Boers were farmers from the eastern Cape in Southern Africa, the descendants of Dutch-speaking settlers. In 1836 around 20,000 Boers set out on the Great Trek across the Vaal River into Batswana and Zulu territory and proceeded to set up their own free state ruling the Transvaal – a move ratified by the British in the Sand River Convention of 1852. Effectively, this placed the Batswana under the rule of the so-called new South African Republic, and a period of rebellion and heavy-handed oppression ensued. Following heavy human and territorial losses, the Batswana chiefs petitioned the British government for protection from the Boers.
But Britain had its hands full in Southern Africa and was in no hurry to take on and support a country of uncertain profitability. Instead, it offered to act as arbitrator in the dispute. By 1877, however, animosity against the Boers had escalated to such a dangerous level that the British conceded and annexed the Transvaal – thereby starting the first Boer War. The war continued until the Pretoria Convention of 1881, when the British withdrew from the Transvaal in exchange for Boer allegiance to the British Crown.
With the British out of their way, the Boers once again looked northward into Batswana territory. In 1882 the Boers managed to violently oppress the towns of Taung and Mafikeng, and proclaimed them the republics of Stellaland and Goshen. They might have gone much further had it not been for the annexation of South West Africa (modern-day Namibia) by the Germans in the 1890s.
With the potential threat of a German-Boer alliance across the Kalahari, which would have put an end to their dreams of expansion into mineral-rich Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), the British started to look seriously at the Batswana petitions for protection. In 1885 they proclaimed a protectorate over their Tswana allies, known as the British Crown Colony of Bechuanaland.
Cecil John Rhodes
British expansion in Southern Africa came in the form of a private venture under the auspices of the British South Africa Company (BSAC), owned by millionaire businessman Cecil John Rhodes.
By 1889 Rhodes already had a hand in the diamond-mining industry in Kimberley (South Africa), and he was convinced that other African countries had similar mineral deposits just waiting to be exploited. He aimed to do this through the land concessions that companies could obtain privately in order to colonise new land for the Crown. The system was easily exploited by Rhodes, who fraudulently obtained large tracts of land from local chiefs by passing off contracts as treaties. The British turned a blind eye, as they eventually hoped to transfer the entire Bechuanaland protectorate to the BSAC and relieve themselves of the expense of colonial administration.
Realising the implications of Rhodes’ aspirations, three Batswana chiefs – Bathoen, Khama III and Sebele – accompanied by a sympathetic missionary, WC Willoughby, sailed to England to appeal directly to the British parliament for continued government control of Bechuanaland. Instead of taking action, the colonial minister, Joseph Chamberlain, advised them to contact Rhodes directly and work things out among themselves.
Naturally, Rhodes was immovable, so the delegation approached the London Missionary Society (LMS), who in turn took the matter to the British public. Fearing that the BSAC would allow alcohol in Bechuanaland, the LMS and other Christian groups backed the devoutly Christian Khama and his entourage. The British public in general felt that the Crown should be administering the Empire, rather than the controversial Rhodes. Public pressure rose to such a level that the government was forced to concede to the chiefs. Chamberlain agreed to continue British administration of Bechuanaland, ceding only a small strip of the southeast (now known as the Tuli Block) to the BSAC for the construction of a railway line to Rhodesia.
By 1899 Britain had decided it was time to consolidate the Southern African states, and it declared war on the Transvaal. The Boers were overcome in 1902, and in 1910 the Union of South Africa was created.
By selling cattle, draught oxen and grain to the Europeans streaming north in search of farming land and minerals, Bechuanaland enjoyed an initial degree of economic independence. However, the construction of the railway through Bechuanaland to Rhodesia and a serious outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the 1890s destroyed the transit trade. This new economic vulnerability, combined with a series of droughts and the need to raise cash to pay British taxes, sent many Batswana to South Africa to look for work on farms and in mines. Up to 25% of Botswana’s male population was abroad at any one time. This accelerated the breakdown of traditional land-use patterns and eroded the chiefs’ powers.
The British government continued to regard the protectorate as a temporary expedient until it could be handed over to Rhodesia or the new Union of South Africa. Accordingly, investment and administrative development within the territory were kept to a bare minimum. Even when there were moves in the 1930s to reform administration or initiate agricultural and mining development, these were hotly disputed by leading Tswana chiefs on the grounds that they would only enhance colonial control. So the territory remained divided into eight largely self-administering Batswana-owned reserves and five white settler farm blocks, with the remainder classified as ‘Crown’ (ie State) land. Similarly, the administrative capital, Mafikeng, which was situated outside the protectorate’s border, in South Africa, remained where it was until 1964.
The extent to which the British subordinated Botswanan interests to those of South Africa during this period became clear in 1950. In a case that caused political controversy in Britain and across the world, the British government banned Seretse Khama from the chieftainship of the Ngwato and exiled him for six years. This, as secret documents have since revealed, was in order to appease the South African government, which objected to Khama’s marriage to a white British woman at a time when racial segregation was enforced in South Africa.
This only increased growing political agitation, and throughout the 1950s and ’60s Botswanan political parties started to surface and promote the idea of independence, at the precise historical moment when African colonies elsewhere were seeking their freedom. Following the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, South African refugees Motsamai Mpho, of the African National Congress (ANC), and Philip Matante, a Johannesburg preacher affiliated with the Pan-African Congress, joined with KT Motsete, a teacher from Malawi, to form the Bechuanaland People’s Party (BPP). Its immediate goal was independence.
In 1962 Seretse Khama and Kanye farmer Ketumile ‘Quett’ Masire formed the moderate Bechuanaland Democratic Party (BDP). The BDP formulated a schedule for independence, drawing on support from local chiefs such as Bathoen II of the Bangwaketse, and traditional Batswana. The BDP also called for the transfer of the capital into Botswana (ie from Mafikeng to Gaborone) and a new nonracial constitution.
The British gratefully accepted the BDP’s peaceful plan for a transfer of power, and Khama was elected president when general elections were held in 1965. On 30 September 1966, the country – now called the Republic of Botswana – was granted full independence.
In contrast to the situation in so many other newly independent African states, Seretse Khama wisely steered Botswana through its first 14 years of independence. He guaranteed continued freehold over land held by white ranchers, and adopted a strictly neutral stance (at least until near the end of his presidency) towards South Africa and Rhodesia. The reason, of course, was Botswana’s economic dependence on the giant to the south, but, that said, Khama refused to exchange ambassadors with South Africa and officially disapproved of apartheid in international circles.
Sir Seretse Khama died in 1980 (not long after Zimbabwean independence), but his Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), formerly the Bechuanaland Democratic Party, continues to command a substantial majority in the Botswana parliament. Sir Ketumile ‘Quett’ Masire, who succeeded Khama as president from 1980 to 1998, followed the path laid down by his predecessor and continued to cautiously follow pro-Western policies.
In 1998 President Masire did something very few African leaders seem to manage – he retired in keeping with new constitutional provisions and stepped gracefully off the political stage. His successor and former vicepresident, Festus Mogae, became president and his position was confirmed in elections the following year. With the country in the grip of an HIV/AIDS catastrophe – Botswana had the highest infection rate of any country in the world – Mogae won international acclaim by announcing in 2001 that treatment drugs for HIV/AIDS patients were to be distributed free of charge. Mogae was reelected president in a landslide in 2004.
Festus Mogae handed over the presidency to vicepresident Ian Khama (son of Sir Seretse Khama) on 1 April 2008. Mogae is lauded in global circles for the move. Whatever the international community thought of Mogae, his decision to make Khama president generated concern at home as Khama had not yet been elected as president.
Since assuming power, Khama has cracked down on drinking, demanding earlier curfews at bars (sometimes enforced, sometimes not). In addition, Khama, a former commander of the Botswana Defence Force, has appointed military and law-enforcement colleagues to government posts traditionally held by civilians, which has caused some concern in civil society. Nonetheless, the BDP with Khama at the helm easily won elections in October 2009.
Khama's government also generated controversy with policies that continue to make life difficult for the San who want to return to the CKGR and with the decision to ban all commercial hunting in Botswana from 2014. Even so, Khama remains popular and he was reelected as president for a second term in 2014. At the same time, the BDP won a clear majority of parliamentary seats and, having controlled Botswana's politics since independence, looked likely to remain in power for some years to come.