Sir Seretse Khama, 1st President of Botswana

Is your surname Khama?

Research the Khama family

Sir Seretse Khama, 1st President of Botswana's Geni Profile

Share your family tree and photos with the people you know and love

  • Build your family tree online
  • Share photos and videos
  • Smart Matching™ technology
  • Free!

Seretse Khama, Sir. 1st President of Botswana

Birthplace: Serowe, Bechuanaland Protectorate, British Empire
Death: July 13, 1980 (59)
Gaborone, Gaborone, South-East District, Botswana (Pancreatic Cancer)
Place of Burial: Botswana
Immediate Family:

Son of Sekgoma II aKhama, Chief of the Ngwato and Tebogo Kebailele
Husband of Lady Ruth Khama
Father of Jacqueline Tebogo Khama; Ian Khama, Lt Gen. 4th President of Botswana; Anthony Paul Khama and Private
Half brother of Gasetshwarwe aSekgoma and Oratile aSekgoma

Managed by: Sharon Doubell
Last Updated:

About Sir Seretse Khama, 1st President of Botswana

Sir Seretse Khama, KBE

(July 1, 1921 – July 13, 1980) was a statesman from Botswana. Born into one of the more powerful of the royal families of what was then the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland, and educated abroad in neighbouring South Africa and in the United Kingdom, he returned home—with a popular but controversial bride—to lead his country's independence movement. He founded the Botswana Democratic Party in 1962 and became Prime Minister in 1965. In 1966, Botswana gained independence and Khama became its first president.

Seretse Khama was born in 1921 in Serowe, in what was then the Bechuanaland Protectorate. He was the son of Sekgoma Khama II, the paramount chief of the Bamangwato people, and the grandson of Khama III, their king. The name "Seretse" means “the clay that binds", and was given to him to celebrate the recent reconciliation of his father and grandfather; this reconciliation assured Seretse’s own ascension to the throne with his aged father’s death in 1925. At the age of four, Seretse became kgosi (king), with his uncle Tshekedi Khama as his regent and guardian.

After spending most of his youth in South African boarding schools, Khama attended Fort Hare University College there, graduating with a general B.A. in 1944. He then travelled to the United Kingdom and spent a year at Balliol College, Oxford, before joining the Inner Temple in London in 1946, to study to become a barrister.

In June 1947, Khama met Ruth Williams, an English clerk at Lloyd's of London, and after a year of courtship, married her. The interracial marriage sparked a furore among both the apartheid government of South Africa and the tribal elders of the Bamangwato. On being informed of the marriage, Khama's uncle Tshekedi Khama demanded his return to Bechuanaland and the annulment of the marriage. Khama did return to Serowe but after a series of kgotlas (public meetings), was re-affirmed by the elders in his role as the kgosi in 1949. Ruth Williams Khama, travelling with her new husband, proved similarly popular. Admitting defeat, Tshekedi Khama left Bechuanaland, while Khama returned to London to complete his studies.

However, the international ramifications of his marriage would not be so easily resolved. Having banned interracial marriage under the apartheid system, South Africa could not afford to have an interracial couple ruling just across their northern border. As Bechuanaland was then a British protectorate (not a colony), the South African government immediately exerted pressure to have Khama removed from his chieftainship. Britain’s Labour government, then heavily in debt from World War II, could not afford to lose cheap South African gold and uranium supplies. There was also a fear that South Africa might take more direct action against Bechuanaland, through economic sanctions or a military incursion. The British government therefore launched a parliamentary enquiry into Khama’s fitness for the chieftainship. Though the investigation reported that he was in fact eminently fit to rule Bechuanaland, "but for his unfortunate marriage", the government ordered the report suppressed (it would remain so for thirty years), and exiled Khama and his wife from Bechuanaland in 1951.

The sentence would not last nearly so long. Various groups protested against the government decision, holding it up as evidence of British racism. In Britain itself there was wide anger at the decision and calls for the resignation of Lord Salisbury, the minister responsible. A deputation of six Bamangwato travelled to London to see the exiled Khama and Lord Salisbury, in an echo of the 1895 deputation of three Batswana kgosis to Queen Victoria, but with no success. However, when ordered by the British High Commission to replace Khama, the people refused to do so.

In 1956, Seretse and Ruth Khama were allowed to return to Bechuanaland as private citizens, after he had renounced the tribal throne. Khama began an unsuccessful stint as a cattle rancher and dabbled in local politics, being elected to the tribal council in 1957. In 1960 he was diagnosed with diabetes. In 1961, however, Khama leapt back onto the political scene by founding the nationalist Bechuanaland Democratic Party. His exile gave him an increased credibility with an independence-minded electorate, and the BDP swept aside its Socialist and Pan-Africanist rivals to dominate the 1965 elections. Now Prime Minister of Bechuanaland, Khama continued to push for Botswana's independence, from the newly established capital of Gaborone. A 1965 constitution delineated a new Botswana government, and on 30 September 1966, Botswana gained its independence, with Khama acting as its first President. In 1966 Elizabeth II appointed Khama Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.

Khama remained president until his death from pancreatic cancer in 1980. He was buried in the Royal Cemetery on a hill in Serowe, Central District.

Twenty-eight years after Khama's death, his son Ian succeeded Festus Mogae as the fourth President of Botswana; in the 2009 general election he won a landslide victory in which a younger son, Tshekedi Khama, was elected as a parliamentarian from Serowe North West.

view all

Sir Seretse Khama, 1st President of Botswana's Timeline

July 1, 1921
Bechuanaland Protectorate, British Empire
February 27, 1953
Chertsey, United Kingdom
July 13, 1980
Age 59
Gaborone, Gaborone, South-East District, Botswana