Happy 50th birthday, Botswana

Landlocked African republic maintains a low profile as it celebrates a half century of independence

Our commemoration of the 1916 Rising invites us to reflect on other countries' emergence from a colonial past especially when they too celebrate a significant anniversary. Today – September 30th – Botswana celebrates 50 years as an independent state. Although approximately the size of France but with a population of 2.3 million, land-locked Botswana, bordering on four southern Africa countries, maintains its historically low profile.

Yet it is by no means unknown. Alexander McCall Smith's charming and perceptive novels starting with The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency give a wryly humorous picture of the resourceful Batswana and their pride in their country.

Older readers will recall Nicholas Montserrat's The Tribe that lost its Head, and those who follow the financial pages of this newspaper will have observed the quotation for Botswana Diamonds. Orapa is the world's largest diamond mine by area, operated by Debswana, a partnership between De Beers and the Botswana government.

Followers of athletics may have noted that Nijel Amos won a silver medal in the Men's 800m at the 2012 London Olympics, and this year film-goers will be introduced to the country with the release of A United Kingdom, a real life story already tipped for Oscars.


That Botswana should ever have been a protectorate from the beginning of its colonial experience in 1885 seems to have been a matter of some reluctance for all concerned. The Bechuana tribes had been no match for the invading Mzilikazi, with whom the missionary Robert Moffat curiously struck up a relationship, but after the Boer commandos had raided his son-in-law Livingstone's house on Tswana territory three tribal chiefs supported by the London Missionary Society travelled to England and gained the sympathetic ear of Queen Victoria herself.

By this time Cecil Rhodes was a major force in South Africa. Supremely powerful from his involvement in South Africa's gold and diamond mining and hostile towards Afrikaners' unsympathetic attitude regarding his aspirations further north, he was irritated by Britain's imperial aspirations. Bechuanaland provided an opportunity whereby all might happily converge. Britain offered the Batswana defence from the Boers, and Rhodes achieved his goal of establishing a railroad to Rhodesia through the new protectorate.


Following the creation of the Union of South Africa, Britain was represented by a high commissioner who also held direct sway over the high commission territories of Basutoland, the Bechuanaland Protectorate and Swaziland.

However, diplomatic and gubernatorial skills are different and the relationship with South Africa became increasingly one of diplomacy, whereas the administration of the “territories” necessitated the direct care of governors, subordinate resident commissioners whose hands were tied to this chain of command, particularly Bechuanaland’s with its headquarters outside the country in Mafeking.

Partly as a consequence, protection was accompanied by a decidedly modest assumption of financial responsibility and the country’s development stagnated. Roman-Dutch criminal law administered by white administrators proved acceptable, but when in 1934 a white man was beaten in kgotla (tribal meeting-place) for molesting an African girl the response was the arrival of an outraged acting high commissioner complete with howitzers.

Tshekedi Khama, the tribal regent, was banished by the admiral who held this appointment, though restored after a fortnight, but it was a taste of what was to come.

Early in 1948, Seretse Khama, the heir to the Bamangwato chieftainship which he was due to take over shortly, who had attended Balliol College, Oxford, and was reading law at the Inns of Court, married Ruth Williams, a London secretary.

The regent, his uncle the same Tshekedi, opposed the marriage. Seretse had not asked his permission, and Ruth was white. While the kgotla supported the regent initially, Seretse won his tribesmen round and eventually Tshekedi prepared to leave. Seretse would be chief and Ruth his queen.


However, the colony of Southern Rhodesia voiced its objection to Seretse’s assumption of the chieftainship, and more tellingly South Africa threatened to resume its demand for the incorporation of the high commission territories. Incredibly, Seretse’s fitness to serve as chief was subjected to a commission of inquiry and he was invited to London where he was informed that he was banished for five years; he had left Ruth in Serowe but was allowed back for the birth of his first child.

Agreement was reached between Seretse and his uncle but administratively the matter was badly handled and in 1952 the then conservative government’s secretary of state for commonwealth relations, Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, stripped Seretse of his chieftainship. He was permanently exiled. Riots in Serowe followed and three policemen lost their lives.

The story seems incredible now, belonging to an almost unimaginably dark age of imperial bigotry and unfettered racialism. It is worth recording that during this time three junior district officers wrote in protest directly to the secretary of state over the heads of their superiors. One was to receive a George Medal for his courageous conduct in the disturbances.

Most extraordinary of all is the fact that Seretse brought not only his own people but also drew the entire country into the equation of the solution – unifying the nation. He was sufficiently magnanimous to accept the lowly position of tribal secretary of the Bamangwato and some years later a knighthood, but at all times he was Bechuanaland’s towering figure.

Modest, humorous, quietly but unquestionably commanding, and a much-loved personality; there was never serious question as to who would be the first prime minister and first president.

Britain was equally fortunate in her choice of governor during this period. Peter Fawcus, a wartime Royal Navy lieutenant-commander, had arrived from Basutoland five years before becoming resident commissioner in 1959 and possessing detailed knowledge of the country. He was unfailingly supported by seasoned administrators who had an enthusiasm for what clearly lay ahead and carefully-chosen younger successors who were well focused on the future to which they gave dedicated commitment.

He worked tirelessly for the country's development, whether it meant confronting the South African government – or traditional chiefs, whether Batswana or among his own fellow-countrymen. On the achievement of self-government in 1965 Sir Peter Fawcus retired as first queen's commissioner, his role and the job incomplete but his own involvement modestly concluded. Few colonial governors have departed with such genuine regret and he returned several times as an honoured guest. A street in Gaborone bears his name.


Botswana has been a democracy since independence, its president also head of state. Ian Khama, Seretse's elder son, a former commander of the army, is the fourth holder of the office and will stand down in 2019. His party the BNP holds 41 of the 63 seats in the parliament. The House of Chiefs serves in an advisory capacity.

The security problem involved incursions by South African and elements from Rhodesia in the colonial era and beyond. Prior to 1966 the country had been used by anti-apartheid activists, including Nelson Mandela, as a corridor by which to return to South Africa, and as an escape route for those fleeing the regime, notably Wolpe and Goldreich who were involved with the military arm of the ANC.

A US-trained army was formed in 1977 and this exemplary force has moved from anti-poaching and disaster-preparedness to United Nations roles as observers and peace-keeping operations in Rwanda, Lesotho and Somalia.

Its huge land border with South Africa with whom relations are cordial but watchful, and President Ian Khama has not failed to voice criticism of his neighbour Robert Mugabe.

In the 1980s Botswana was to become the world’s largest producer of gem diamonds. Mining, which includes copper and nickel, contributes some 85 per cent of state revenue. Before independence a high proportion of adult males worked in the South African mines under appalling conditions. However, recent declines in world markets and talks between de Beers and Namibia hold questions for the future.

Tourism is also an important source of income, with 38 per cent of the land area devoted to national parks. The Okavango Delta with seasonal flooding, the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, and as far back as 1960 the Chobe National Park with some 50,000 elephant are major attractions. Few countries equal Botswana for its rich and diverse concentration of lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard, cheetah and bird life.

On the debit side with the Kalahari occupying 77 per cent of the land mass, drought, erosion and disease hamper agriculture which contributes only 2 per cent to GDP, though around half of all households own cattle. Only 7 per cent of the land is arable and the lack of rainfall renders its development pitifully dependent on dams and boreholes. “Pula !”, meaning rain, is not only the name of the currency, but also a form of greeting. “May the rain fall softly on your fields”, is a fair translation.

Poverty and lack of equality remain obstinately high, limiting Botswana’s economic development, though poverty is lower by 31 per cent than it was at independence, and at 9 per cent of GDP expenditure on education is among the highest in the world. But there is another problem.

HIV was first detected in Botswana in 1985. Its seriousness was quickly recognised and progress against the disease was taken as soon as health workers could be recruited and trained, with the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Harvard programme. However, the country’s achievement of “upper-middle income status” has seen the reduction of funding and the disease still threatens the economy inflicting a huge reduction in the labour force. However, it no longer holds the world’s highest HIV infection rate and no new outbreaks are expected from 2016.

As one of Africa’s most stable countries, with its tradition of responsible political development and its acknowledged freedom from corruption and admirable civil rights record, the Republic of Botswana with the help of its well-deserved friendships is set to overcome many of its difficulties and to look forward to the years ahead.


Probably the last expatriate district officer, I went to the Bechuanaland Protectorate in 1963 when it was on the exciting path to independence. This was never going to be a career, particularly for me as I was on contract, whereas my two colleagues were “permanent and pensionable”.

I was the youngest and both the others had experience of Africa, but I had the fortunate advantage in having met a couple of Batswana studying in Ireland, particularly Sekgoma Khama who, after Rockwell College, was studying at UCD.

My colleagues went immediately to the districts but I remained in the Mafeking Secretariat (the South African headquarters of the administration before Gaborone became the capital) to begin as private secretary to the resident commissioner, Peter Fawcus, soon to be elevated to the Queen’s commissioner with a knighthood, free from the oversight of the high commissioner in Pretoria and Cape Town.

Within days Sekgoma had called at my hotel – itself a risky act in apartheid South Africa – and taken me to meet his uncle Dr Molema, a veteran of the infant political scene of a past era, at his home in the township. He spoke of his medical studies in Edinburgh and his visit to de Valera’s Dublin.

My work included researching, arranging and accompanying a wide variety of visitors and gubernatorial tours. Of the three high commission territories with Basutoland and Swaziland, Bechuanaland was uniquely free from unrest, which no doubt heightened its appeal to those keen to help develop the new state. It was a busy time with the capital Gaborone still in the planning stage and first elections to be held under one-person-one-vote.

The Woodpile

In Mafeking (famously relieved by Baden-Powell) the governor's residence was Protectorate House and when the move to Gaborone was complete Sir Peter's new home was nicknamed Fawcus Hall. The story goes that when Seretse was asked what he was going to call it when he moved in as president he replied, "The Woodpile". I'm glad to see that this story is also recorded in Susan Williams's book Colour Bar – The Triumph of Seretse Khama and his Nation (Penguin 2007).

Many see the colonial world as a uniformed existence of feathered pith-helmets and white suits, and indeed ceremonial occasions still had their place. At one of them a banner of protest read, “Is the vote a right or a privi” – surely the last word on the subject as well as indicating of a lively sense of humour widely shared.

Sir Peter’s elevation was also rewarded with feathers, his “stuffed owl”, for the top of his helmet. The locals viewed such paraphernalia with quiet amusement. One tribe during its history had seen off an admiral in full-dress uniform come to read them the riot act, and some years later had refused to turn out for another satrap in colonial attire.

However, uniforms were not regarded lightly. On one occasion, to test accommodation availability should the worse come to the worst during the country’s first elections, a unit of the York & Lancaster Regiment arrived by Beverley air transport, bringing with them their band with which to Beat the Retreat, stuff sufficiently stirring to bring tears to the white of many an eye.

The accompanying colonel, thinking that by wearing standard uniform he was perhaps overdoing it, decided that at the next venue the following day he would wear his brown suit and pork-pie hat. He was met by the diminutive figure of the appalled tribal chief of the Bangwaketse, Kgosi Bathoen II, attired in the full-dress uniform which Queen Victoria had given to his father on his famous 19th century visit to London with two other chiefs, of an officer in the Life Guards.

In due course I was posted as a district officer to Serowe, the tribal capital of the Bamangwato, and the home of Seretse and Ruth Khama, and his nephews Leapeetswe – who had also been at Rockwell College and was shortly to become chief of the tribe in all but name – and Sekgoma.

Visitors landing on the rugged airstrip would be greeted by my district commissioner in his Old Etonian tie, and Seretse wearing that of Balliol College, Oxford. The district was huge, 44,000 square miles, and my own touring area extended from the Makarikari Salt Pans to the white-owned farms in the Tuli Block.

I held tribal meetings at which sense of theatre was important, judged criminal cases, and inspected schools, medical posts and other government buildings, and signed passports and other government permits.


Like everywhere else in the colonial world of the day, Bechuanaland was well sprinkled with Irishmen. In Francistown Monsignor Urban Murphy from Dolphin’s Barn was renowned for courageously dispelling potential riots. In Serowe Paul Dixon, a Trinity graduate, ran the teacher training college and Fr Oswald Doherty from Donegal was the parish priest.

As I was empowered to conduct civil marriages I came to an understanding with Fr Oswald at an early stage, and he and I played tennis regularly at the height of a Saturday afternoon with Leapeetswe and Dr John Moore, before attending the evening “bioscope” in the packed community hall. There was no cinema – and no pubs in Serowe either thanks to the austerity of the earlier regent Tshekedi Khama.

Many Irishmen have contributed to Botswana, which continues to send students to Ireland. I am thinking of the pioneering Trinity doctor Morgan in the 1920s whose son was elected to a seat in the first legislative assembly under universal adult suffrage, Dr David Fitzpatrick more recently, Peter Raftery who was a British high commissioner, and the constitutional draftsman the late Vincent Grogan, SC, and the many young volunteers who have gone there to work – in the tradition of Richard Burke, fourth viceroy of India and Earl of Mayo, who improved relations with Afghanistan, completed the first census, and created a department of agriculture and commerce, before being assassinated in the Andaman Islands. He is remembered in a stained-glass window in St Patrick's Cathedral.

On this your 50th birthday, may the rains fall lightly on your fields, Botswana. Pula!

David Millar was a district officer in the British protectorate of Bechuanaland, prior to its attaining independence as the Republic of Botswana on September 30th, 1966. An article by him on Botswana was published by The Irish Times on that date.