Monday, September 21, 2020

Man of the Moment, the Legacy of Seretse Khama

Today marks the 91st anniversary of the birth of one of Africa’s greatest statesman, Seretse Khama (1921-80). For the next few weeks we shall explore his legacy by looking into not only the life of the man himself, but also the lives of some of those who mentored and supported him.

There are those who would minimise the role of individuals in history, arguing that the development of any society is rather determined by underlying socio-economic trends.

While not necessarily subscribing to the “Great Man Theory” of progress, this author is, however, of the view that our social evolution has been far too fluid and arbitrary to fit conveniently into any structurally determined paradigm. Across time, the course of human affairs has often been driven for better or worse by a coming together of man (or woman) and moment.

In the absence of such timely figures as Alexander the Great, Napoleon and Hitler, Lenin and Lincoln, never mind some of the great religious leaders of the past, we might be living in a different sort of world. Yet these same iconic figures could easily have remained obscure to us had they appeared in another place and time.

As a fleeting but momentous example of the coming together of man and moment, one may ponder what might have been had not the 19 year old Gavrilo Principal found himself, virtually by chance, holding a pistol within five feet of Franz Ferdinand’s car on the 28th of June 1914. Would there have been a First World War? Perhaps and maybe not.

One circumstance where the meeting of man and moment has often been critical across cultures and time can be found in the legacies of national founding figures.

A few years ago a global online poll to determine the greatest figure of the 20th century resulted in the largest number of votes being cast in favour Mustafa Kemel Ataturk (1881-1938). Virtually all of the votes had come from Turkey, whose citizens still very much live in the shadow of their first republican President’s militantly secular and nationalist vision.

For the USA, George Washington (1732-99) could very well have assumed the role of either monarch or dictator. But instead he chose to retire to his farm after having served two terms as the first president of the federal republic whose status he, like Ataturk, had done much to secure by the might of both pen and sword.

Unlike modern Turkey or the USA, our country was not directly born out of an armed liberation struggle. For both Botswana and the region Seretse was, nonetheless a liberation figure. The evolution of this country under his administration between 1965 and 1980 was peaceful, but radical.

During the period Botswana was transformed from a collection of Tribal Reserves, Crownlands, and concession areas that had made up the British administered colonial Protectorate, into an independent, non-racial and increasingly prosperous nation.

Our economic growth rate was then the highest in the world. But equally impressive was the rise in such human development indicators as our literacy rate and life expectancy.

At the same time Seretse’s regional contribution to the ultimate overthrow of minority rule was considerable, if too often overlooked.

Like Ataturk and Washington, Seretse had a clear vision of where he wanted to lead his nation. A key turning point in this respect was neither his 1966 Independence Day statement nor his October 1961 announcement at the Serowe kgotla that “the people should unite and form an organization with proper leaders which would be a power in the land.”

The coming together of man and moment was already evident back in April of 1958 when Seretse Khama for the first time attended and rose to speak at a meeting of the Joint Advisory Council, a body then dominated by a handful of dikgosi and white settlers.

As an alternative to the continued threat of the Bechuanaland Protectorate’s potential incorporation into the Union of South Africa, some of the dikgosi and their liberal white counterparts had been attracted to the possibility of joining the supposedly multi-racial Central African Federation, which consisted of then Nyasaland (Malawi) as well as Southern and Northern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe & Zambia).

But, in his remarks before the body, Seretse put forward his own independent vision, affirming that:

“I think it is time that we ourselves in Bechuanaland, who neither belong to the Union of South Africa nor the Federation, or any other part as far as I can see, except Great Britain, should try to formulate a policy of our own which is probably unique to us. And that is a policy, perhaps, of even teaching those countries who profess to be more advanced than ourselves, that in as far as administration and race relationships they have more to learn from us than we from them.

“I must say, quite frankly that I have been rather disturbed to find that on the whole there is a tendency to look always over our shoulders. Perhaps I am wrong, if so I stand corrected. We want to see what is happening elsewhere instead of getting on with what we know is peculiar to us and to the country itself.

“We should get on and have no fear that we may incur someone’s displeasure, as long as what we do is internationally accepted…And if we are right I am afraid emotion must come into this; we should not bother very much with what anyone might say. We have ample opportunity in this country to teach people how human beings can live together.” (To be continued)


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