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A Potted History of Botswana

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Botswana’s recent history is a dramatic and fascinating tale – from intense colonial politics and dazzling diamonds, to the true love story of unshakable royal romance; this is a colourful country with a colourful past.

stampIn 1885 Great Britain made Bechuanaland (modern day Botswana) a protectorate. This happened at the height of the scramble for control of African territory by European powers that had intensified after the Berlin Conference of 1884, where the continent had effectively been divided between European countries with imperial ambitions. Bechuanaland was strategically placed between the German colony of South-West Africa and the Boer Transvaal territory to the East. By the 1870’s the Boers had been ravaging the area so severely that the local king, Khama III, asked for Bechuanaland to be taken under British protection. In many ways, this was a mutually beneficial agreement for the king and for Britain.

With the Germans and Boers representing a potentially serious rivalry to British interests, Britain hoped that by controlling Bechuanaland, these two unfriendly territories would be prevented from uniting and inhibiting British dominance of Southern and Eastern Africa. From the king’s point of view, Bechuanaland was made a protectorate, rather than a full-blown colony, so some small degree of autonomy was retained.

Bechuanaland enjoyed a relatively peaceful existence right into the mid-20th century. By the 1950’s, the ‘winds of change’ were blowing at gale-force across British territories in Africa and demands for independence were growing. After fighting for survival in the defence of European democracy against the might of world-domineering Nazi Germany in the second world war, bankrupt Britain no longer had the will or the means to project imperial influence on a grand scale.

diamondsAt this point however, a young, unnamed boy changed the fate of a nation one day while he was out playing in the countryside of South Eastern Botswana. While the boy was wandering, he noticed a stone in the dirt and after toying with the object for some time, he picked it up and took it home. A severe shock greeted the boy’s father, who recognised what his son had brought home. The boy’s plaything was a diamond. Presumably recognising the value of the rough diamond, but demonstrating unwavering loyalty, the boy’s father took the stone to the local British authorities, who in turn passed the diamond up the chain of command until eventually this precious object rested on a desk in the British colonial office in London.

Coincidentally Botswana’s independence was not an immediate prospect, and geologists were hastily dispatched to the area around the Motloutse River. Three small alluvial diamonds were discovered here in 1955, but after an exhaustive search lasting several years, the geologists decided that the discovery of these stones had merely been a ‘flash in the pan’. Consequently they gave up and returned home empty handed. With all hopes of lucrative mineral extraction dashed, preparations for Botswana’s independence progressed.

But when independence arrived, who would lead the new Botswana? Born in 1921, Seretse Khama was the grandson of Khama III – the king who had applied to make Bechuanaland a British protectorate. With his royal and political lineage, Seretse Khama was seemingly an ideally placed candidate to take the reins of the new country. In the 1940’s however, an international romance rocked the foundations of regimes across continents and saw Khama banished thousands of miles from his home country, powerless to influence politics in any way.

In 1945 Seretse Khama travelled from Southern Africa to England to study law for a year at Baliol College, Oxford. One day in June 1947, Seretse was in London. This English summer’s day was much like any other; with a constant sound rising from the bustle of people and vehicles as they negotiated grey roads in wet weather, going about their business like a multitude of tiny cogs in the colossal metropolitan machine of the capital city. After traversing the drab, rain-soaked paving stones of central London streets, dodging puddles and cigarette butts on his way, with only the crimson highlights of telephone and letter boxes occasionally colouring the sepia scene, Seretse met a woman and fell in love.

family1Ruth Williams was a WAAF ambulance driver during the Second World War and by 1947 was working as a clerk at Lloyds in London. In 1948 Seretse and Ruth married. Unfortunately, this apparently happy moment at once threw Britain and the whole of Southern Africa into political turmoil.

Inter-racial marriages were banned under the vicious Apartheid government in South Africa, and every Machiavellian machination imaginable was pitted against Khama and his wife, to prevent them from becoming involved with the politics of Botswana. At this time, greatly diminished by the economic annihilation of World War Two, Britain was heavily reliant on imports of gold and uranium from South Africa. In a shameful act of weak-kneed South African appeasement, Britain conducted a parliamentary investigation into Khama’s suitability for the chieftaincy of Bechuanaland. To the British government’s embarrassment the report ruled that Khama was, “eminently fit to rule”, but the report was suppressed for thirty years and Khama and his wife were banished to England in 1950.

Defying a British public outcry, Lord Salisbury pushed to make the Khama’s exile permanent. Under intense pressure over this acquiescence to racism, with Britain’s WWII fight for freedom and national sense of fair play at the forefront in the public’s mind, the out of touch Salisbury was over-ruled and Khama and his wife were allowed to return to Bechuanaland in 1956, provided he renounced his claim to the chieftaincy.

Times changed, and while he had been in Britain, Seretse had become a Nationalist hero in his home-land. In 1962 Khama founded the Bechuanaland Democratic Party, and by 1965 Khama was elected Prime Minister of Bechuanaland.

bots-stamp2In 1966, Britain relinquished control of Bechuanaland, and Botswana was granted full independence, with Seretse Khama becoming the country’s first president. Having overcome the immense struggles of his rocky road to power, President Khama was now in control of a very poor and underdeveloped country, with apparently no hope of improving things for the people. Amidst this bleak outlook, enough funds were cobbled together for a small new geological exploration, despite the fact that the earlier search for diamonds had failed to discover more than three tiny stones.

There was however, a very good reason for the failure of the geologists’ previous attempts to uncover any significant diamond deposits: they had been looking in the wrong place.

To cut a long explanation short, ancient tectonic activity had caused river courses to change dramatically as landscapes were altered when hills and valleys were created. The Okavango River once flowed out of Botswana to the East, joining the Limpopo River, but when land in the north west of the country sank and land further east rose, the river could no longer complete its journey to the ocean. Instead, today the river flows into the vast inland Okavango delta, where water ends its journey in an incredible and breathtaking expanse of flooded seasonal wetlands. Essentially, changes in ancient river courses appear to have confused the earlier geologists, and it was only in 1967 that studies began to deliver results.

It was ultimately discovered that Botswana had unimaginably large quantities of diamonds just waiting to be mined, and today the country still boasts the world’s largest open-pit diamond mine at Orapa.

okavango-sunset-squareThe stroke of genius that set Botswana on a path to stability that sadly marks the country out from several of its more troubled neighbours, was to recognise that mineral wealth is a finite resource. A careful policy of investment in infrastructure, education and healthcare steadily improved the country from humble beginnings. Eventually, tourism was recognised as a vital source of reliable and potentially inexhaustible income and a concerted policy of developing high-end, relatively low-volume tourism was pursued.

Because of the prudent, stable economic management of the country by Khama’s successors, Botswana now represents a premier safari destination, with the beautiful Okavango Delta now preserved as a natural jewel in the nation’s crown. The unique landscape of Botswana, from the open Kalahari sands to the spectacular wetlands of the delta, has seen a spellbinding past that mirrors the allure of the country’s better known natural attractions.

Oliver Coulson, Dec 2014.

 



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