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Did Khama III curse Bangwato chieftainship?

Publishing Date : 15 May, 2017


The retirement of President Lt Gen Ian Khama next year will be a watershed moment for the tribe of Bangwato, which has been under regency chieftainship since the death of Sekgoma II in 1925.

The Bangwato tribe, the largest and most influential tribe in Botswana will for the first time in almost a century have the opportunity to have a substantive chief since 1925. Ian Khama (or Khama IV) is the Kgosi of Bangwato but has not been unable to take over the throne ever since being pronounced the chief of the tribe in 1979.

At the time when he was pronounced the chief of Bangwato he was serving in the military as Brigadier General and also army Deputy Commander. Previously, his father was also unable to take the throne first owing to his controversial marriage to British national Ruth Williams, and secondly due to his decision to engage in national politics during the formative years of Botswana.


The quandary of the Bangwato chieftainship can be traced to the 1890s and early 1900s when Khama III, one of the most popular chiefs of his era broke ranks with his son, Sekgoma II who was heir to the throne. According to various historians Khama III did not want his son Sekgoma II to be heir to the throne, leading to a power struggle between the two resulting in the latter going into exile.  

According to Michael Crowder who authored Tshekedi Khama’s biography “The Black Prince”, when Sekgoma attained his majority he proved as strong willed as his father and the two began to clash over issues affecting the administration of the state. In 1898 Sekgoma II accused his father of grooming his son-in-law, Ratshosa Motsetle, the husband of his eldest daughter Bessie, to succeed him. Khama III reportedly told his son, Sekgoma II that: “And to you Sekgoma, I swear that you will never get the chieftaincy...I must warn you that I can deny you the chieftaincy and pass it to the Ratshosas if I like.”

Sekgoma II was the first son of Khama III’s first wife Mma-Bessie, which means Sekgoma II was heir to his father’s throne. This was so because traditional custom dictates that the heir to the throne is born not chosen contrary to what Khama III wanted to do. Historians revealed that after Khama III married Semane, and bore him his second son, Tshekedi, Khama III wanted him as his successor not Sekgoma II as it was the norm. Sekgoma II was on exile when Tshekedi was born.

They further reveal that Khama was entirely devoted to his new son and made it clear when he wrote a will in 1907 disinheriting Sekgoma II and making Tshekedi heir to what in its time was a major fortune largely vested in cattle. He did not, however, formally declare Tshekedi heir to the kingship or chieftaincy as the colonial rulers now designated it at that time. “Whether Khama liked it or not, Sekgoma was the legitimate heir, and there was little he could do to change the fact. For the Tswana kgosi is born, he is not chosen nor is he elected,” wrote Crowder.

It is also revealed that the two reconciled in 1916 when Sekgoma II heard that his father was gravely ill. Sekgoma will return to Serowe in 1922, a year after his first son, and heir to the throne of Bangwato, Seretse was born. The following year, Khama III died, and Sekgoma II was installed as chief of Bangwato by the British. Despite having been in good health, Sekgoma II died the two years after his father’s death. The heir to the throne, Seretse was only four years old. Thus, Sekgoma II was the last chief to be installed in the throne. That was 94 years ago.

When Sekgoma II unexpectedly died in 1925, Tshekedi Khama, the only surviving son of Khama III was recalled from Lovedale Fort Hare University while readying for Matriculation in preparation for his university degree. Tshekedi took over the leadership of the tribe because Seretse was only four years and not ready to govern at that time. Tshekedi knew the agreement was that he will lead the tribe until Seretse was old enough.


After completing his degree at Fort Hare University College in 1944, Seretse travelled to the United Kingdom and studied for a year at Balliol College, Oxford. While in England, Seretse met and married Ruth Williams, a marriage which stoked controversy among the tribe and in world politics. Back then, the idea of a black man marrying a white woman was a taboo. At the height of racism Seretse was prevented from taking the throne by the British government owing to his marriage to Ruth Williams.


His uncle, Tshekedi Khama was also opposed to the marriage, a matter which saw the tribe being divided into two. Although the tribe recognised Seretse as their chief from 1949-1950, he was never installed and recognised as a chief by the colonial government. In 1956 he renounced the chieftainship and later joined politics which meant he was unable to pursue his duties as the leader of Bangwato tribe. Instead he chose to be the leader of the nation. Seretse, in the formative years of Botswana, helped to make a constitution which forbade chiefs from participating in national politics.


Ian Khama named fully after his father (Seretse) and great-grandfather (Khama) became known as Kgosi Khama IV. He was pronounced as the paramount chief of Bangwato in 1979; a year before his father died. Khama has also never took over the throne like his father because of military duties. Apparently, in the 1980s the tribe wanted Khama IV to be recalled from the army to take over the chieftainship.

In 1998, Khama left the army, like his father he joined politics and inherited the leadership of Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) a party which his father founded. In his absence, Kgosi Sidiegeng Khama, a descendant of Sekgoma I has been acting on his behalf. Kgamane I is the brother to Khama III. The retirement of Khama next year will avail him the opportunity to take over the throne, for the first time in 95 years. Will Khama IV take over the reign?



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