Botswana - Political background

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The Batswana, a term which refers both to all citizens of Botswana as well as to the country's major ethnic group, arrived from neighboring South Africa during the Zulu wars in the early 1800s. Hostilities between the Batswana and Boer settlers from the Transvaal in the late 19th century led the Batswana to appeal to the British for help. In 1885, the British government put Bechuanaland (as Botswana was formerly known) under its protection. The northern territory remained under direct British administration and became what is now Botswana.

In 1920, two advisory councils were established, representing Europeans and Africans; in 1934, the councils issued proclamations regularizing tribal rule and powers. A joint European-African advisory council was formed in 1951. Ten years later the Constitution established a consultative legislative council. In 1964, the British accepted proposals for democratic self-rule and the seat of government was moved to the new city of Gaborone in 1965. These developments, along with the formation of political parties in 1960, were the precursors to general elections held in March 1965 and independence in September 1966.

Botswana boasts one of the few flourishing constitutional multiparty democracies in Africa. Since independence, elections have been freely contested and held on schedule. The Constitution provides for a president elected every five years in a national election, who, as of the 1999 election is limited to two terms. The cabinet is drawn from the National Assembly and includes a vice president and a flexible number of ministers. The National Assembly is elected to a five-year term and consists of 40 elected and 4 appointed members; it is adjusted every 10 years after the national census. Suffrage is universal, and the voting age, set at 21 upon independence, was lowered to 18 by constitutional reforms enacted in 1995. The House of Chiefs is an advisory body representing the eight major subgroups of the Batswana; any legislation with ethnic implications must be referred to the House of Chiefs.

The first president of the Republic of Botswana was Seretse Khama, the former heir to the chieftainship of the Bamangwato ethnic group and a founder, in 1962, of the Bechuanaland (later Botswana) Democratic Party (BDP). The BDP won 28 of 31 seats in the legislative assembly during the 1965 election, and Khama became prime minister and later president. He was reelected to the presidency three times, although the BDP faced challenges from several opposition parties that gained support during that period. Nonetheless, the BDP retained the majority in all succeeding governments.

Khama died in 1980 and was succeeded by his vice president, Quett Ketumile Masire, another BDP founder. He was elected in his own right in 1984 and was reelected twice. During his 18-year tenure, Masire was able to maintain power for the BDP despite significant internal tension and rising support for opposition groups. The 1990s were marked by concern regarding a successor to Masire within his party, by corruption scandals that forced the resignations of the vice president and three ministers, by increasing demands for electoral reform, and by sporadic rioting which reflected rising social discontent. In January 1998, Masire announced that he would resign the presidency in favor of Festus Mogae, his vice president. This resignation was intended to allow Mogae to build support prior to the October 1999 election and it appeared to accomplish that goal; Mogae won that election with 54.3% of the vote in the National Assembly.

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