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Bamangwato tribal chief Seretse Khama w. his white British wife Ruth, on hill overlooking native huts in the tribal capital of Bechuanaland from which the British Commonwealth officials wish to remove him for marrying a white woman.

Bamangwato tribal chief Seretse Khama with his white British wife Ruth, on hill overlooking native huts in the tribal capital of Bechuanaland from which the British Commonwealth officials wished to remove him for marrying a white woman.

Forbidden Love

The Bride wore Black

A love affair between an English bank clerk and an African chieftain provoked panic amongst post-war British colonial officials who schemed to have the couple exiled.

The enduring love affair between a black man and a white woman began one summer night in gloomy, rationed postwar Britain. But this was no ordinary man, nor indeed any ordinary woman. He was Seretse Khama, the heir to the kingship of the largest tribe of an African protectorate under British control; she was Ruth Williams, a 23-year-old clerk in a shipping company, and a conservative, with a small and large c.

The love story of Seretse and Ruth defines an era of dying colonial power. Stymied in their relationship at every turn by the British government, in covert alliance with apartheid South Africa, the dignity of Khama and his strong-willed bride came to represent the emerging freedoms and racial tolerance of Africa as a whole.

The young Khama was sent over to London in 1945 to study law by his uncle, the Regent of the Bangwato tribe to which Seretse was heir. Lonely at first in the chill world of Oxford, he moved to London, where he met several other politically minded young Africans; and then met Ruth, at a dinner dance, in June 1947. Within months, the couple were engaged.

Almost immediately, the young mixed-race couple faced trouble. They were plagued by racist landlords and casual abuse in the streets. British government officials, family friends and church figures tried to prevent the marriage. On their first attempt to wed in a Kensington Church it was blocked by the Bishop of London, and the person who was meant to marry the pair was told in no uncertain terms he should not officiate at the wedding. The ceremony didn’t go ahead, but the couple managed to marry secretly at a registry office, four days later.

The bride wore a black suit.

The relationship between Ruth Williams and Seretse Khama, the chief of the Bamangwato tribe, made headlines in Britain and Africa and left British colonial officials in the protectorate of Bechuanaland scrabbling for a solution.

Fearing pressure from South Africa, they could not know that when the protectorate became independent as Botswana almost 20 years later, the man causing them such concern would be its first president and be knighted.

When the news broke the British Government faced fierce opposition from the apartheid government in neighbouring South Africa and those in North and South Rhodesia, which had banned inter-racial marriage. The Prime Minister of South Africa, Daniel Malan, pronounced the relationship “nauseating”.

Secret papers released in Kew show that British officials feared that the Malan Government, dominated by Afrikaners, would use the issue as leverage to push for “immediate transfer” of Bechuanaland to South Africa under proposals that the British had resisted since the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910.

In one diplomatic cable from May 1950 the British High Commissioner in Bechuanaland, A.D.Forsyth Thompson, wrote: “If Seretse with his white wife were recognised as Chief of the Bamangwato that would immediately unite white opinion in the Union against us, even that of many of our friends and we would promptly be placed in a most difficult position over immediate transfer.”

The papers show that Africans in Bechuanaland and Lesotho also opposed the marriage.

In another secret despatch the Bechuanaland High Commissioner quoted one tribal delegation: “They were most strongly opposed to ‘black-white marriages’. What the lion does the jackal will copy. This marriage is a disaster for Africa. The chief’s actions are always copied and we shall find in 25 years that many other Bechuana will have married white wives, and in another 25 years the Bamangwato will be finished, they will be like the Cape Coloureds’. British officials reported that they were “surprised at the strength of criticism from other tribes against the appointment of a “white ruler”.

Other papers record British officials accusing Sir Seretse of doing a “grave disservice” to the British administration and assuring other tribal leaders that he and Ruth would shortly “disappear”.

A special inquiry was set up to decide whether Seretse was a fit and proper person to discharge the functions of Chief, the inquiry found in his favour but nonetheless argued that South Africa’s opposition to his marriage, and therefore his chieftainship, constituted enough reason to bar Khama from returning to his country.

Khama was summoned to Britain, and was discourteously made to wait through a general election before being informed of his banishment from his homeland and the postponement of any decision about the chieftainship for five years.

Khama fought a dignified campaign against his painful seven-year exile in Britain. His case became a cause célèbre among MPs, left and right, who kept up insistent pressure in Parliament, as well as prominent actors, journalists and churchmen. In early 1952 the then Tory government, hoping to keep Khama as far from Africa as possible, insulted him with the offer of an administrative post in Jamaica. He refused.

The government’s eventual capitulation was in large part due the advancing tide of colonial freedom.

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Their romance caused major political and diplomatic ructions. But the extraordinary love story of the late Botswanan president Sir Seretse Khama and his middle-class white English wife Ruth Williams endured despite all the obstacles and outrage.

Seretse was the Oxford-educated student prince from the British protectorate of what was then Bechuanaland who in 1948, at 27, married Ruth, a 24-year-old clerk with a Lloyd’s underwriter.

Their union was fiercely opposed by her father and Seretse’s family. He was chief-in-waiting of the Bamangwato tribe and had been sent to London by his uncle Tshekedi Khama to study law, after which he was to return home and marry a woman from his tribe.

The British government and the uncle joined forces to demand that Seretse give up his white wife, or quit his tribal lands and leave his homeland. As Amma Asante, director of A United Kingdom, said, “they were sent into exile because of their forbidden love”.

Ruth was born in Blackheath, south-east London, the daughter of a former Indian Army captain who later worked in the tea trade.

She loved jazz; so did Seretse. They met when Ruth’s sister Muriel took her to a London Missionary Society dance in 1947 where Seretse asked her to dance.

It was a whirlwind romance.

Seretse didn’t seek consent from his uncle because he knew it would be denied, but Ruth had to ask her father George, who argued that she should not marry a black man. But she ignored him. Ruth’s fear was telling her father, because she knew it was going to be a hurdle.

After the first picture of Ruth and Seretse was released after the news of their marriage in 1948, it’s thought  she had not known that they were suddenly going to have the weight of the British government coming down on them, or that a high-up politician would come into her office saying: ‘If you go ahead with this, you’re going to bring down the British empire in Africa’.

The British government and the uncle ended up joining forces to demand that Seretse give up his white wife, or quit his tribal lands and leave his homeland. They were sent into exile because of their forbidden love.’
2581207267_65b06951a5Seretse Khama was born on 1st July 1921, the son of Sekgoma, Chief of the Bamangwato (or Bangwato) Tribe and ruler of the Bamangwato Reserve in the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland, now known as Botswana.

Serowe is the capital of the Bamangwato people and central district.

Seretse was born as heir apparent to Sekgoma II, ruler of the Bamangwato between 1923 and 1925, and Tebogo, daughter of Kebailele. He was the grandson of Khama III – the greatest Bamangwato ruler who brought many Batswana people together while on the throne, before he died in 1923, with Sekgoma II taking over.

In Setswana the word ‘seretse’ means ‘mud’, but when used as a name in Botswana it was understood more as referring to the ‘clay that binds’. When Seretse was given the name it was not in vain.

The name was given in reference to his arrival in during a period of turmoil in the royal family, a state that was to become a repeated theme all throughout his life.

But more precisely he was named Seretse to celebrate the recent reconciliation of his father and grandfather Khama III. It was this reconciliation that assured Seretse’s passage to the throne when his father died while he was only 4 years old.

The Bamangwato Reserve, which had been established in 1899 in the time of Seretse’s grandfather, Khama III, comprised an area of approximately 40,000 square miles in Southern Africa. In 1946 it had an African population of about 10,000 (divided into several tribes including the Bangwato) and a European population of around 500. When Sekgoma died in 1925, Seretse was still in infancy and a regency was established, with his uncle, Tshekedi Khama, assuming the roles of Seretse’s guardian and Acting Chief of the Bamangwato Tribe. Tshekedi sent his ward to England to continue his education, studying law at Balliol College, Oxford, and then at the Inner Temple in London, to which he was admitted on 14th October 1946.

Seretse was a man born to bring people together (both in and outside Botswana) as he did when he finally ascended to the presidency.

With the passing on of his parents – his father Sekgoma in 1925, and mother Tebogo in 1930, Seretse remained in the care of his uncle Tshekedi Khama who ruled the Bamangwato on his behalf. Since he was too young to rule, his uncle took over as regent and guardian with the intention of Seretse taking over when he was of age.

Seretse Khama was generally away from home for most of his young life, as he attended boarding schools and eventually travelled overseas.

He received his primary and secondary school learning in two of the prominent schools in South Africa – Lovedale and Tigerkloof.

He went on to earn his general bachelor of arts degree in Fort Hare college in the same country in 1944. He then studied law at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, then proceeded to Balliol College in Oxford, England. Finally he took up Barrister studies at Inner Temple in London in 1946.

Bamangwato tribal chief Seretse Khama (R) standing before Kgotla tribal council meeting explaining why he has to go to London to defend himself in front of British Commonwealth officials because of his mix marriage.

Bamangwato tribal chief Seretse Khama (R) standing before Kgotla tribal council meeting explaining why he has to go to London to defend himself in front of British Commonwealth officials because of his mixed marriage.

Ruth (3R), the British white wife of Bamangwato tribal chief Seretse Khama, w. five of her tribal friends, listing to BBC radio news of her husband's to an account of the decision to banish her husband fr. his homeland because he married her.Circa 1950

Ruth, the British wife of Bamangwato tribal chief Seretse Khama, with five of her tribal friends, listing to BBC radio news of  the decision to banish her husband from his homeland because he married her. Circa 1950

Ruth Williams was born at Blackheath, south east London, on December 9 1923, the daughter of a former captain in the Indian Army who worked in the tea trade.

She was in the family home when it was bombed during the Blitz, and left Eltham High School to join the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. She drove ambulances at the airfields of No 11 Fighter Group and served at the emergency landing station near Beachy Head.

After the return of peace, she became a confidential clerk in the claims department at Cuthbert Heath, the Lloyds underwriters. She rode, ice-skated and went ballroom dancing in her spare time meeting her future husband, a law student living in a hostel near Marble Arch, through their mutual interest in jazz.

Although their initial meeting, when they were introduced by her sister, was not a success, the friendship matured through their enthusiasm for the Inkspots.

The sight of a black man with a white woman was then a rarity in London, and there were some unpleasant incidents in which she was branded a cheap slut by strangers.

After Seretse proposed and she accepted, the couple assumed they would return to Bechuanaland. But problems quickly developed.

When Tshekedi expressed his outrage at the proposal and pressed the London Missionary Society to intervene to prevent the marriage, Seretse defied him and brought the planned wedding date forward to 24th September. However, the Vicar of St. George’s, Campden Hill, who had agreed to conduct the marriage ceremony, lost his nerve in the face of mounting opposition and referred them to the Bishop of London, who was officiating at an ordination ceremony at St. Mary Abbot’s, Kensington. The couple sat through the ordination service only to be told that the Bishop was not prepared to allow the marriage to take place in church without the approval of the British government. Both knew that this was unlikely to be forthcoming. Meanwhile Ruth had become estranged from her father, who thoroughly disapproved of the relationship, and was informed by her employers that, in the event of her marriage, she must choose between a transfer to their New York office or redundancy.

Seretse wrote to his uncle Tshekedi, and the Regent in Bechuanaland, the London Mission Society was pressed to try to prevent the wedding. Sir Evelyn sent warning telegrams from Cape Town to the Commonwealth Office.

Seretse and Ruth complained, the vacillating vicar referred them to the Bishop of London, Dr William Wand, who was conducting an ordination ceremony nearby at St Mary Abbot’s in Kensington.

The young couple sat through this ceremony, but were then told by him that a marriage could not take place until the British Government agreed. Nevertheless, on 29th September 1948, in the face of all opposition, Seretse Khama married Ruth Williams at Kensington Registry Office.

The couple assumed they would return to Bechuanaland. But problems quickly developed. Her father said she could stay in the family home, and then ordered her out.

After Seretse and Ruth got married, unbeknownst to his family and people. Of course, on knowing this there was uproar in his family, but Bamangwato people were happily receptive of the news.

Leading the expression of displeasure was none other than his uncle Tshekedi Khama. It got worse when the apartheid minority of South Africa got wind of the news. Botswana, then Bechuanaland, being a neighbour to South Africa felt Seretse Khama had flouted the social and racial code.

Interracial marriages were banned under the apartheid system and South Africa was not happy with an interracial couple ruling from within close quarters.

In late 1947, Seretse returned to Bechuanaland to seek ratification of his marriage from his tribe: where Seretse told a tribal rally: “Stand up those who will not accept my wife”; he counted them and shouted, “40”. He then asked: “Stand up those who want me and my wife”; 6,000 stood up and applauded for 10 minutes. It was an extraordinary tribe assembly, showing thousands of men standing and showing support for their future Chief.

Sadly, the British response was not so sophisticated: under intense pressure from South Africa, which bordered Bechuanaland, and in alliance with Khama’s uncle, who violently opposed the marriage, they began to find ways to block the return of Khama to his native country.

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In 1952 Seretse was excluded permanently from the Chieftainship and was required to live outside his native country. Ironically, Serestse's uncle Tshekedi, who was still living in the Bakwena Reserve, was also banned from the Bamangwato reserve, whilst the British arranged for a caretaker government, incorporating a Native Authority. It must have seemed to Seretse that he would never return to his native land.

In 1952 Seretse was excluded permanently from the Chieftainship and was required to live outside his native country. Ironically, Serestse’s uncle Tshekedi, who was still living in the Bakwena Reserve, was also banned from the Bamangwato reserve, whilst the British arranged for a caretaker government, incorporating a Native Authority. It must have seemed to Seretse that he would never return to his native land.

The diplomatic storm was just beginning. Seretse was summoned back to Bechuanaland by Tshedeki, arriving there on 22nd October 1948, and faced a four day grilling at the full tribal assembly or kgotla, from 15th to 19th November, for breaking tribal custom and disregarding the regent’s command. ‘The tribe at this first meeting, with almost one voice, condemned the marriage and resolved that all steps should be taken to prevent Seretse’s white wife from entering the Bamangwato Reserve’.

However Seretse was adamant that he would not return to the Reserve without his wife, and suspicions began to arise among the people that Tshedeki was aiming to banish Seretse and to claim the Chieftainship for himself. Therefore at a second meeting of the kgotla in December, a significant number of tribesmen withdrew their objection to the marriage and demanded a guarantee that Seretse would be allowed to return freely to his tribal lands if he went back to England to pursue his legal studies. When Seretse did return from London to the Protectorate in June 1949 and made it clear that he would leave permanently if his wife were not allowed to join him, a third kgotla meeting agreed to accept him as their Chief on any terms and, on 20th August, Ruth Khama arrived at Serowe. In this unexpected turn of events, Tshekedi found his authority overthrown by the vast majority of the tribe which he had ruled with a firm hand for over twenty years.

In a bid to regain support, he threatened to leave his people and settle in voluntary exile in the Bakwena Reserve. His bluff called, Tshekedi left his homeland unopposed, accompanied by a small band of loyal followers. However, Seretse’s future as Chief was far from secure. The British government had not yet recognised him and, at the end of October 1949, the Union of South Africa declared him and his wife as prohibited immigrants.

If they set foot in Mafeking, the headquarters of the Bechuanaland Protectorate, which was situated over the border in South Africa, they would be arrested. How could Serestse effectively rule his people, if he could not negotiate with his powerful neighbours, South Africa and Southern Rhodesia, who both refused to recognize his authority, and could not even enter the headquarters of his own British Protectorate ?

From the outset, the white governments of the Union of South Africa and Southern Rhodesian had expressed grave concerns about the marriage and the consequences of British recognition of Seretse as Chief. Indeed, the Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia warned the British High Commissioner, Sir Evelyn Baring, that the more extreme nationalists would not be willing to remain associated with a country which officially recognised an African Chief married to a white woman, ‘and that they would make Seretse’s recognition the occasion of an appeal to the country for the establishment of a Republic; and not only a Republic, but of a Republic outside the Commonwealth’ . The Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa confirmed that he would not oppose such a move, whilst keeping a watchful eye on the situation in Bechuanaland. Under the provisions of the South Africa Act of 1909, the Union laid claim to the neighbouring tribal territories and, as the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations pointed out to the Cabinet in 1949, the ‘demand for this transfer might become more insistent if we disregard the Union government’s views’. He went on, ‘indeed, we cannot exclude the possibility of an armed incursion into the Bechuanaland Protectorate from the Union if Serestse were to be recognised forthwith, while feeling on the subject is inflamed’.

Was the Secretary of State overreacting? Probably not when one considers that the Prime Minister of South Africa, Dr. D. F. Malan, had led the National Party to its first victory in 1948 specifically on a platform of apartheid. The British government was in a dilemma. Should it summon Seretse to London ‘so that an attempt might be made to persuade him to relinquish voluntarily his claim to the chieftainship?’ At a Cabinet meeting on 21st July 1949 the Secretary of State for the Colonies violently disagreed. He saw that the government would be widely criticised for attempting to influence Seretse in this way to pander to white opinion in South Africa and pointed out the danger of appearing to be racist. The Cabinet agreed. ‘The issue was not one of the merits of demerits of mixed marriages and the Government should vigorously rebut any suggestion that their attitude to this question was in any way determined by purely racial considerations’. Their prime object must be to safeguard the future well-being of the Bamangwato themselves. A judicial enquiry would give everyone time for reflection and for tempers to cool. Accordingly an enquiry was arranged in Bechuanaland to examine the suitability of Seretse Khama for the Chieftainship of the Bamangwato Tribe. It reported in December 1949.

The outcome of the enquiry was not entirely predictable. For example, it concluded that if the tribe had forgiven Serestse for failing to follow native custom over his marriage, ‘who are we to insist on his punishment ?’ That particular issue was closed and did not in itself render Seretse unfitted to rule. Also, ‘though a typical African in build and features’, the enquirers found Seretse an intelligent, well-spoken, educated man ‘who has assimilated, to a great extent, the manners and thoughts of an Oxford undergraduate’.

However, the results of the marriage in souring relations with neighbouring Commonwealth countries could not be ignored. Since, in their opinion, friendly and co-operative relations with South Africa and Rhodesia were essential to the well-being of the Bamangwato Tribe and the whole of the Protectorate, Seretse, who enjoyed neither, could not be deemed fit to rule. They concluded: ‘We have no hesitation in finding that, but for his unfortunate marriage, his prospects as Chief are as bright as those of any native in Africa with whom we have come into contact’.

Seretse could not be recognised as Chief and was recalled to London in 1950. He cabled his wife from the British capital, ‘Tribe and myself tricked by British Government. Am banned from whole protectorate. Love Seretse’. Ruth remained in Bechuanaland for a while afterwards, and Serestse was permitted to join her there for the birth of their first child. They both returned to London and Ruth became reconciled to her father.

However, his cause was not forgotten either in London or in Africa, and a number of politicians kept the issue alive in the British Parliament, including Winston Churchill and Anthony Wedgwood Benn. In 1956 the Bamangwato cabled the Queen to ask for the return of their Chief, and after both Seretse and Tshekedi had signed undertakings renouncing the Chieftainship for themselves and their heirs and agreeing to live in harmony with each other, they were allowed to return home as private citizens.

After a few years living as a cattle rancher and dabbling in local politics, Seretse was motivated to enter national politics. He founded the Bechuanaland Democratic Party, which won the 1965 elections, the prelude to his country’s gaining independence as Botswana in 1966. He was knighted that year and became Botswana’s first president, serving a total of four presidential terms before his untimely death in 1980 at the age of 59. He left Botswana an increasingly democratic and prosperous country with a significant role in the politics of Southern Africa. He remained a popular figure in his native country, and is remembered by G J Phipps Jones, Headmaster of Moeding College in Botswana during Seretse’s presidency who has since returned to Britain, as ‘very caring and considerate…a softly spoken, gentle man.’ Ruth, a keen charity worker, continued live in Botswana and to undertake a wide range of charitable duties, including acting as president of the Botswana Red Cross.

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Ruth, with her husband, Bamangwato tribal chief Seretse Khama, eating dinner in sparsely furnished dining alcove w. a visiting native chief as kittens play on antelope skin rug.

Ruth, with her husband, Bamangwato tribal chief Seretse Khama, eating dinner in sparsely furnished dining alcove w. a visiting native chief as kittens play on antelope skin rug.

Bamangwato tribal chief Seretse Khama with his white British wife Ruth, on hill overlooking native huts in the tribal capital of Bechuanaland from which the British Commonwealth officials wish to remove him for marrying a white woman.

Bamangwato tribal chief Seretse Khama with his British wife Ruth, on hill overlooking native huts in the tribal capital of Bechuanaland from which the British Commonwealth officials wish to remove him for marrying a white woman.

It should be noted that ever since the marriage took off in 1948, Seretse Khama had hit the headlines as a black man who married a white English woman during the time when the social and political climate was not supportive of interracial marriages, especially in the context of apartheid practice in South Africa.

When the couple was barred from visiting Bechuanaland, and Khama dethroned, the world transformed their admiration for the pair into anger at what was perceived as persecution for the innocent Seretse and Ruth by the British Government and the apartheid regime of South Africa.

International press expressed outrage forcing Britain to re-consider its stance on the matter. In addition, various groups protested against the British government holding it up as evidence of British racism.

In Britain there was wide anger at the decision and calls made for the resignation of Lord Salisbury the minister responsible at the time.

When the British High Commissioner to Bechuanaland ordered the Bamangwato to replace Khama they resisted instead demanding that their kgosi be returned.

They cabled the queen to ask for the return of their chief; in addition, there was a deputation of six Bamangwato elders who travelled to London to see Khama and lord Salisbury, in an echo of the 1895 deputation of three Bamangwato kgosis to Queen Victoria.

Britain asked both Seretse and Tshekedi to sign undertakings to renounce their chieftainship and live in harmony.

Khama bowed to the request, and in 1956 he and and Ruth were allowed to return to Botswana as private citizens.

As for Tshekedi, he died in London on 10th June 1959, but was buried in Serowe.

Ruth, the British wife of Bamangwato tribal chief Seretse Khama, chatting w. boy fr. nearby village who broke his arm in an auto crash, while standing outside her house.

Ruth, the British wife of Bamangwato tribal chief Seretse Khama, chatting w. boy fr. nearby village who broke his arm in an auto crash, while standing outside her house.

Lady Khama never spoke any local languages, and remained a keen reader of Reader’s Digest and National Geographic. But she was kept busy bringing up their four children and playing a leading role in charity work. One of her particular delights lay in attending Commonwealth conferences.

After her husband’s death in 1980, there was some speculation that Lady Khama might settle in London, but she had no intention of leaving.

Known to the population as ‘Lady K’, she was a familiar figure in her adopted country, considering herself a Motswana, or native citizen of Botswana, until her death on 22 May 2002. She is survived by their daughter and three sons.

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Sir Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams Khama and two of their children. Seretse was the son of the Chief of the Bangwato Tribe and ruler of the Bechuanaland (a protectorate by Great Britain) and later known as Botswana.

Between 1966 and 1980 Botswana had the fastest growing economy in the world. Much of this money was reinvested into infrastructure, health, and education costs, resulting in further economic development. Khama also instituted strong measures against corruption, the bane of so many other newly-independent African nations. Unlike other countries in Africa, his administration adopted market-friendly policies to foster economic development. Khama promised low and stable taxes to mining companies, liberalized trade, and increased personal freedoms. He maintained low marginal income tax rates to deter tax evasion and corruption. He upheld liberal democracy and non-racialism in the midst of a region embroiled in civil war, racial enmity and corruption.

On the foreign policy front, Khama exercised careful politics and did not allow militant groups to operate from within Botswana. According to Richard Dale “The Khama government had authority to do so by virtue of the 1963 Prevention of Violence Abroad act, and a week after independence, Sir Seretse Khama announced before the National Assembly his government’s policy to insure that Botswana would not become a base of operations for attacking any neighbour.” Shortly before his death, Khama would play a major role in negotiating the end of the Rhodesian civil war and the resulting creation and independence of Zimbabwe.
On a personal level, he was known for his intelligence, integrity and sense of humour.

Most significant, Seretse is the father of democracy in Botswana and Africa. He said in parliament in 1978, ‘democracy like a plant does not grow or develop on its own. It must be nursed and nurtured if it is to grow and flourish’.

Botswana has set aside 1st July as holiday in honour of Seretse Khama. This is his birthday and the day is referred to as ‘Sir Seretse Khama Day’.

But he is simply known as Botswana’s founding president. He inherited an impoverished and internationally obscure state from British rule, and left it a democratic and increasingly prosperous nation.

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