As with many African countries, Botswana is steeped in an oral tradition where stories are passed down from generation to generation. Much of Botswana’s early history remains unrecorded. The impact of Western culture and the lure of urban promises have to some extent eroded the history of the ancestors. There are few bushmen, for example, who can re-tell the stories of their great grandparents – but some, determined these stories will not die entirely, are taking steps to reclaim their lost history and traditions.
The recent history of the country that has been recorded is in part a reflection of the exploits of a succession of visitors and travellers to what was then Bechuanaland – missionaries, invaders, artists, traders and explorers. The famous artist and writer, William Burchill, for example, came to the country in 1805 and collected 40,000 botanical and insect specimens. He also sensitively and methodically recorded in ‘Travels In The Interior’ many examples of traditions and ways of life of the peoples he met and of the vast array of flora and fauna he discovered.
The greatest impact made on Botswana was through the early missionaries. The energetic and hard-working Scottish cleric, Robert Moffat, is probably the most well known. His time here coincided with turbulence: warring tribes were in conflict in the areas bordering South Africa. Mzilikazi, Shaka’s general, left the Zulu areas in South Africa and travelled north, overcoming others on the way. He befriended Moffat – not really because of a conversion to Christianity but because he valued the moral and practical advice Moffat gave him. Moffat’s daughter, Mary, married a later visitor to the country: David Livingstone.
It may be true to say that although the early missionaries were not entirely successful in a vast conversion of Batswana to Christianity, the sophistication and knowledge these clerics brought to the people are still felt today. In part, the Batswana tolerated the missionaries for they brought learning to the people though at the same time, they knew that foreign influences were impacting on their traditional culture. You may still meet Batswana today who have the Anglicised name of Moffat, for example – and a street in Francistown, Botswana’s second city, still bears his name.
In the late nineteenth century, partly to counter the stronghold of the Boer presence in northern parts of South Africa, partly to protect the ‘Missionaries’ Road’ which was established into the Kalahari area and partly to balance the German control of South West Africa (now Namibia), the British finally established the British Bechuanaland (north of the Molopo River) The country was ruled by the enlightened Khama 111, a man of strong Tswana traditions who agreed that Bechuanaland would remain a British Protectorate. And the country remained a British dependency until it gained full autonomy in 1966.
Shortly after the Second World War, Seretse Khama, grandson of Khama III and heir to the Ngwato chieftaincy, married Ruth Williams while studying at Oxford University and London’s Inner Temple. This shocked the British government, which refused to recognise Khama’s right to succeed in Bechuanaland. He was banished from the country of his birth. In 1956, in return for giving up his right to the Ngwato chieftaincy, he was allowed to return to Bechuanaland with his wife. Shortly afterwards, in the 1960 ‘Winds of Change’ address by the British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, Bechuanaland moved quickly to an independence constitution and ironically, and somewhat justifiably, Sir Seretse Khama was elected as premier of self-governing Bechuanaland.
On 30 September 1966, the country received its formal independence as Botswana with Sir Seretse Khama as the first president – a post he held until his death in 1980. His successor, Dr Quett Masire was founder of the current ruling BDP (Botswana Democratic Party). The last four decades in Botswana’s history have demonstrated remarkable development and strong economic growth. This has been despite political pressures in its early years from South Africa to join the apartheid regime in a Southern African Federation and the political upheavals in its neighbouring country, Zimbabwe. With the lifting of the ban in South Africa on the ANC (African National Congress) in 1990 and the political reforms in South Africa, the tensions have lifted and Botswana’s peaceful development has continued since then. The current President, Sir Seretse Khama, is both Head of State and Executive Head of Government; the once powerful hereditary chiefs no longer play a large role in national politics – although the House of Chiefs does advise the government on tribal matters. No law relating to traditional matters can be passed without reference to this House.
Botswana is politically and economically stable. Parliament is reasonably well represented by differing tribal groups in the country. The government also takes its responsibilities of managing the economy seriously. Huge recent investments have been made in building good main roads (though roads in remote areas can be arduous), hospitals (a vast hospital is currently being built in Maun to serve the large area of Ngamiland) and schools. Education absorbs a quarter of the national budget.