The earliest inhabitants of Botswana were San or Basarwa (Bushmen) who have been in the area an estimated 30,000 years. Their nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle has left few traces except rock paintings (there are some 3,500 paintings at 350 sites in the Tsodilo Hills). More technologically advanced and powerful pastoral and agricultural Bantu groups moved in from the northwest and east around the first and second century CE. The first Setswana-speaking group, the Bakgalagadi, arrived sometime in the 14th century. While there was plenty of land, the different peoples coexisted peacefully but in the early 19th century, Mzilikazi (a captain of Zulu chief Shaka) broke away and led a Zulu force northwards. The local people were scattered and forced into more arid lands.
The upheavals of the region were greatly exacerbated when, from around 1836, the Boer Trekkers, escaping British rule, began to arrive and displace other groups. In the 1840s British missionaries David Livingstone and Robert Moffat established stations among the Bakwena; Moffat translated the Bible into Setswana.
In 1872 Khama III became chief of Bamangwato, one of the tribes of the Batswana group. A capable general and Administrator, he secured immunity from Matabele raids and increased order and stability. To avoid Boer rule, particularly after the discovery of gold at Tati, Khama asked for British protection; this was given in 1885. The terms were that Khama retained control of administration, law and justice, while Britain was responsible for security.
The territory south of the Molopo river was annexed to the Cape Colony in 1895 while the rest remained under British protection as Bechuanaland. A capital was chosen at Mafikeng, a town settled almost exclusively by Tswana-speaking tribes. At Mafikeng, which was actually in South Africa, outside the Protectorate, the now global boy scout movement was started by Lord Baden-Powell. Bechuanaland successfully resisted pressure to grant mining concessions to the British South Africa Company and also (in 1909) successfully resisted becoming part of South Africa.
Over the next half-century, the country languished: it became a provider of cheap labour for South Africa’s mines, education and welfare were neglected, and the administration came entirely into colonial hands.
In 1923 Khama III died; his son and successor, Sekgoma, died after being in power only two years. Three-year-old Seretse Khama then inherited the leadership, with his uncle, Tshekedi Khama, as Regent.
Seretse Khama’s accession in 1950 changed the tone of Bechuanaland politics. While studying law in London, he married a white English woman. This was rated as a serious breach of tribal custom in Botswana, and also in racially segregated South Africa and Rhodesia. Seretse Khama was forced to stand down as chief of the Ngwato. The UK yielded to pressure and held him in exile until 1956. On his return to Bechuanaland, Seretse Khama campaigned for change and in the 1960s founded the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP). Its policy sought a non-racial and democratic but traditional society in which chiefs and traditional courts still had a role.
In 1960 a representative legislative council was set up; there was now a formal negotiating mechanism and independence was achieved in a series of peaceful moves. Central authority was strengthened, the position of the chiefs and African courts defined. The seat of government was transferred from Mafikeng to Gaborone. In the pre-independence elections of 1965, the BDP won 28 of the 31 elective seats. The country achieved independence as a republic on 30 September 1966 with Seretse Khama as President.
Seretse Khama led the country from 1965 until his death in 1980, when he was succeeded by Dr Quett Masire, formerly
Vice-President, who was knighted as Sir Ketumile Masire in 1991.
Although the BDP had easily won every election since multiparty democracy was established in 1965, in the general election of 1994 the main opposition party, the Botswana National Front (BNF), won 13 seats (37 per cent of the vote) as against the BDP’s 27 seats (54 per cent), with the smaller parties failing to win any seats.
In November 1997 at the age of 73, President Masire announced he would retire in March 1998. On 1 April 1998 Festus Mogae, who had served as Vice-President since 1992, was sworn in as President. He also became leader of the BDP. The only new member of Mogae’s first cabinet was Ian Khama (son of former President Sir Seretse Khama), who retired as commander of the Botswana Defence Force to take up the key post of Minister of Presidential Affairs and Public Administration and was appointed Vice-President in July 1998.