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Pre-colonial history

Following the fragmented trail of ancient pottery, archaeologists and anthropologists have been able to piece together the complex, criss-crossing migration of different tribal groups into southern Africa. Between AD 200 and 500 Bantu-speaking farmers started to appear on the southern landscape from the north and east. To begin with, relations between the San and Khoikhoi appear to have been cordial, and the groups mixed freely, traded and intermarried.

Perhaps the most significant development in Botswana’s long history was the evolution of the three main branches of the Tswana tribe 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. Realistically, these fractures probably occurred in response to drought and expanding populations eager to strike out in search of new pastures and arable land.

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Colonial history

From the 1820s the Boers began their Great Trek across the Vaal River. Confident that they had heaven-sanctioned rights to any land they might choose to occupy in southern Africa, 20, 000 Boers crossed into Tswana and Zulu territory and established themselves as though the lands were unclaimed and uninhabited. At the Sand River Convention of 1852, Britain recognised the Transvaal’s independence and the Boers informed the Batswana (people of Botswana) that they were now subjects of the South African Republic.

Prominent Tswana leaders Sechele I and Mosielele refused to accept white rule and incurred the violent wrath of the Boers. After heavy losses of life and land, the Tswana sent their leaders to petition the British for protection. Britain, however, was in no hurry to support lands of dubious profitability and offered only to act as arbitrator in the dispute. But by 1877, the worsening situation provoked the British annexation of the Transvaal and launched the first Boer War, with violence continuing until 1881. In 1882, Boers again moved into Tswana lands and subdued Mafeking, threatening the British route between the Cape and the suspected mineral wealth in Zimbabwe.

Again, the Tswana lobbied for British protection and in 1885, thanks to petitions from John Mackenzie (a friend of the Christian Chief Khama III of Shoshong), Britain resigned itself to the inevitable. Lands south of the Molopo River became the British Crown Colony of Bechuanaland and were attached to the Cape Colony, while the area north became the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland.

A new threat to the Tswana chiefs’ power base came in the form of Cecil Rhodes and his British South Africa Company (BSAC). By 1894, the British had all but agreed to allow him to control the country. An unhappy delegation of Tswana chiefs – Bathoen, Khama III and Sebele – accompanied by a sympathetic missionary, WC Willoughby, sailed to England to appeal directly to Colonial Minister Joseph Chamberlain for continued government control but their pleas were ignored. As a last resort, they turned to the London Missionary Society (LMS), which in turn took the matter to the British public. Fearing the BSAC would allow alcohol in Bechuanaland, the LMS and other Christian groups backed Chief Khama III. Public pressure mounted and the British government was forced to concede.

Chiefs now grudgingly accepted their rites and traditions would be affected by Christianity and Western technology. The capital of the protectorate was established at Mafeking –actually in South Africa – and taxes were introduced. Chiefs were granted tribal ‘reserve’ (jurisdiction over all black residents and the authority to collect taxes and retain a 10% commission on all moneys collected). In addition, the local economy was bolstered by the sale of cattle, draft oxen and grain to the Europeans streaming north in search of farming land and minerals.

The honeymoon didn’t last. The construction of the railway through Bechuanaland to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the 1890s destroyed the transit trade. In 1924, South Africa began pressing for Bechuanaland’s amalgamation into the Union of South Africa, and when the Tswana chiefs refused, economic sanctions destroyed what remained of their beef market.

In 1923, Chief Khama III died and was succeeded by his son Sekgoma, who died after serving only two years. The heir to the throne, four-year-old Seretse Khama, wasn’t ready for the job of ruling the largest of the Tswana chiefdoms, so his 21-year-old uncle Tshekedi Khama became regent of his clan.

Resident Commissioner Sir Charles Rey determined that no progress would be forthcoming as long as the people were governed by Tswana chiefs and proclaimed all local government officials answerable to colonial magistrates. So great was the popular opposition – people feared that it would lead to their incorporation into South Africa – that Rey was ousted from his job and his proclamation annulled.

During WWII, 10, 000 Tswana volunteered for the African Pioneer Corps to defend the British Empire. After the war Seretse Khama went to study in England where he met and married an Englishwoman. Tshekedi Khama was furious at this breach of tribal custom, and the South African authorities, still h­oping to absorb Bechuanaland into the Union, were none too happy. The British government blocked Seretse’s chieftaincy and he was exiled from the protectorate to England. Bitterness continued until 1956 when Seretse Khama renounced his right to power and returned with his wife to Botswana to serve as a minor official.

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Nationalism & independence

The first signs of nationalist thinking among the Tswana occurred in the late 1940s, and in 1955 it had become apparent that Britain was preparing to release its grip on Bechuanaland. University graduates returned from South Africa with political ideas, and although the country had no real economic base, the first Batswana political parties surfaced and began thinking about independence.

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-Africanist Congress, along with KT Motsete, a teacher from Malawi, formed the Bechuanaland People’s Party. Its immediate goal was independence for the protectorate.

In 1962, Seretse Khama and the Kanye farmer Quett Masire formed the more moderate Bechuanaland Democratic Party (BDP), soon to be joined by Chief Bathoen II of the Ngwaketse. The BDP formulated a schedule for independence, drawing on support from local chiefs and traditional Batswana.

They promoted the transfer of the capital into the country (from Mafeking to Gaborone), drafted a new nonracial constitution and set up a countdown to independence to allow a peaceful transfer of power. General elections were held in 1965 and Seretse Khama was elected president. On 30 September 1966, the country, now called the Republic of Botswana, gained independence.

Sir Seretse Khama – he was knighted shortly after independence – was no revolutionary, adopting a 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 these countries. Nevertheless, Khama refused to exchange ambassadors with South Africa and officially disapproved of apartheid in international circles.

Botswana was economically transformed by the discovery of diamonds near Orapa in 1967. The mining concession was given to De Beers with Botswana taking 75% of the profits.

After the death of Khama in 1980, Dr Ketumile Masire took the helm. His popular presidency ended in March 1998, when the current president, Festus Mogae, assumed control of Botswana.

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Botswana today

Botswana continues to be a shining light among its neighbours, with a nonracial, multi­party, democratic government that oversees the affairs of a peaceful and neutral state. Unlike in so many African countries, freedom of speech, association, press and religion, as well as equal rights, are all guaranteed under the constitution.

The greatest threat to Botswana’s stability is the deadly AIDS virus. Botswana has the highest HIV infection rate in the world, and according to a UN report, 19% of all people and 36% of young adults (aged 15 to 29) are currently infected. There is hope, however. Although discussion of AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases and contraception continues to be taboo in Botswanan society (especially in rural areas), the government increased health spending by 41% in 2001 and established the National Aids Council, which is conducting educational programs in schools and universities throughout the country and highlighting the issue on billboards along the highway. The council is also flooding newspapers with awareness articles. The government has also purchased antiretroviral drugs to treat its infected populace, something traditionally unheard of in Africa.

In regard to malaria, Botswana actually has one of the lowest malaria rates in southern Africa, which is predominantly do to the aridity of the country.

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