Botswanian History


Botswana (bŏtswä´nə), officially Republic of Botswana, republic (2015 est. pop. 2,209,000), 231,804 sq mi (600,372 sq km), S central Africa. It is bordered by Namibia on the west and north, by Zambia at a narrow strip in the north, by Zimbabwe on the east, and by South Africa on the east and south. Gaborone is the capital and largest city. In addition to the capital, important cities are Francistown and Selebi-Phikwe.

Land and People

The terrain is mostly an arid plateau (c.3,000 ft/910 m high); in the east are hills. The Kalahari Desert lies in the south and west. In the northwest the Okavango (Cubango) River drains into the vast region of the Okavango Delta and Lake Ngami, thus forming a huge marshland. Rainfall varies from less than 9 in. (23 cm) per year in the southwest to about 25 in. (64 cm) in the north. The climate is subtropical, but droughts are common.

The country's population is mainly Tswana, who speak a Bantu language and are divided into eight major groups. There are also small minorities of Kalanga, Basarwa, Kgalagadi, and other poeples. English is the official language, but Tswana is also widely spoken. More than 70% of the population follow Christianity and about 10% adhere to traditional practices.


Cattle raising and the export of beef and other cattle products and subsistence farming are the chief agricultural activities. The country's water shortage and consequent lack of sufficient irrigation facilities have hampered agriculture, and only a small percentage of the land is under cultivation. Sorghum, corn, millet, and beans are the principal subsistence crops, and peanuts, sunflowers, and cotton are the main cash crops.

Mining has become the country's economic mainstay since independence. The only known minerals in the country at the time of independence were manganese and some gold and asbestos, but significant diamond, coal, nickel, and copper deposits have since been found, as well as salt, soda ash, and potash. Botswana's diamond mines collectively make up one of the largest diamond reserves in the world, with stones mined by the government and a South African mining concern; Botswana now is also a diamond-processing and -trading center. The revenue earned from diamonds has underwritten national health-care and educational programs, and now drives Botswana's economy. The vast coal deposits are also being worked. Deposits of antimony, sulfur, plutonium, and platinum have also been found.

Although Botswana's mineral wealth has made it one of the wealthiest nations of S Africa, high unemployment remains a problem. The government is attempting to diversify the economy by building up other sectors, including safari-based tourism and financial services. Botswana, because of its landlocked position, remains heavily dependent on South Africa, which provides port facilities. Many Botswanans work in South Africa's mines, although their numbers have diminished. There are rail and road links with South Africa and Zimbabwe, its chief trade partners. Besides minerals, Botswana exports meat and textiles. Imports include foodstuffs, machinery, electrical goods, transportation equipment, textiles, fuel, petroleum products, wood, paper, and metal.


Botswana is governed under the constitution of 1966. The president, who is both head of state and head of government, is indirectly elected to a five-year term and is eligible for a second term. There is a bicameral legislature. The House of Chiefs has 15 members, eight permanent and seven elected for five-year terms. The National Assembly has 63 members, 57 of whom are popularly elected and four appointed by the majority party (the president and attorney general serve as ex-officio members). Members of the National Assembly serve five-year terms and elect the president. Administratively, the country is divided into nine districts and five town councils.


San (Bushmen) were the aboriginal inhabitants of what is now Botswana, but they constitute only a small portion of the population today. The Tswana supplanted the San, who remained as subjects. Beginning in the 1820s, the region was disrupted by the expansion of the Zulu and their offshoot, the Ndebele. However, Khama II, chief of the Ngwato (the largest Tswana nation), curbed the depredations of the Ndebele and established a fairly unified state.

A new threat arose in the late 19th cent. with the incursion of Boers (Afrikaners) from neighboring Transvaal. After gold was discovered in the region in 1867, the Transvaal government sought to annex parts of Botswana. Although the British forbade annexation, the Boers continued to encroach on native lands during the 1870s and 80s. German colonial expansion in South West Africa (Namibia) caused the British to reexamine their policies, and, urged on by Khama III, they established (1884–85) a protectorate called Bechuanaland. The southern part of the area was incorporated into Cape Colony in 1895. Until 1965, Bechuanaland was administered by a resident commissioner at Mafeking (now Mahikeng), in South Africa, who was responsible to the British high commissioner for South Africa.

Britain provided for the eventual transfer of Bechuanaland to the Union of South Africa; in succeeding years, however, South Africa's attempts at annexation were countered by British insistence that Bechuanaland's inhabitants first be consulted. The rise of the National party in South Africa in 1948 and its pursuit of apartheid turned British opinion against the incorporation of Bechuanaland into South Africa. Although Bechuanaland spawned no nationalist movement, Britain granted it internal self-government in 1965 and full independence as Botswana on Sept. 30, 1966. Shortly after, Botswana became a member of the United Nations. Seretse Khama, grandson of Khama III, was elected the first president, and served until his death in 1980, when he was succeeded by Dr. Quett Ketumile Joni Masire.

In the period after independence, the country generally maintained close ties with its white-ruled neighbors and refused to let its territory harbor guerrilla operations against them. Prior to Zimbabwe's independence in 1980, however, Botswana became a refuge for guerrillas. In the years before a multiracial government was established in South Africa, Botswana was the target of South African reprisals.

Despite the increased importance of mining in the Botswanan economy, unemployment has been a problem since the 1970s, as subsistence farming has become less profitable and migrant workers have returned from the South African mines in search of work. By 1997, Botswana also had one of the highest rates of HIV infection (25%). On the political scene, the Botswana National Front, an organization acting on behalf of labor, had grown in popularity since independence, but elections in 1989 and 1994 again gave the ruling Botswana Democratic party (BDP) a majority in the national assembly.

President Masire resigned in 1998 and was succeeded by his vice president, Festus Gontebanye Mogae. Mogae won election to the presidency in 1999, after the BDP retained its hold on the national assembly. The BDP remained in power after the Oct., 2004, national assembly elections, and Mogae was subsequently reelected president. In Apr., 2008, Mogae resigned and was succeeded as president by Vice President Seretse Khama Ian Khama, son of Botswana's first president.

Despite some unhappiness with Khama among BDP members, the party faced a divided opposition and again won the national assembly elections in Oct., 2009, and Khama was then elected to a full term. The BDP and Khama also were returned to power after the Oct., 2014, elections, but those elections were marked by attempts to intimidate opposition politicians and media harassment. Khama, whose tenure in office was marked at times by authoritarian tendencies, resigned in Apr., 2018, and Mokgweetsi Masisi, the vice president, succeeded him.


See Z. Cervenka, Republic of Botswana (1970); A. Sillery, Botswana (1974); J. M. Chirenje, A History of Northern Botswana, 1850–1910 (1976); C. Colclough and S. McCarthy, The Political Economy of Botswana (1980); L. A. Picard, The Politics of Development in Botswana (1987).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Botswanian History: Selected full-text books and articles

Bushmen and Diamonds: (Un)Civil Society in Botswana By Kenneth Good Nordic African Institute, 2003
African Political Economy: Contemporary Issues in Development By Kempe Ronald Hope M. E. Sharpe, 1997
Librarian's tip: Chap. 2 "Growth, Unemployment, and Poverty in Botswana"
The Bechuanaland Protectorate By A. Sillery Oxford University Press, 1952
Explaining Botswana's Success: The Critical Role of Post-Colonial Policy By Beaulier, Scott A The Cato Journal, Vol. 23, No. 2, Fall 2003
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Looking for a topic idea? Use Questia's Topic Generator
Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.