Botswana’s history begins more than 100,000 years ago, when the first people arrived in the area. The Bushmen (San) and Khoi peoples were the indigenous inhabitants of southern Africa. Both spoke Khoisan and lived as hunter-gatherers. Large chiefdoms arose about a thousand years ago, which were subsequently overshadowed by the Great Zimbabwe empire, which extended into eastern Botswana. Around 1300 CE, peoples in present-day Transvaal started to form three major linguistic and political groups, including the Batswana.
The Batswana (plural of “Motswana”), a word used to refer to all Botswanans, are the country’s largest ethnic group today. Prior to European contact, the Batswana were tribally ruled herders and farmers. New tribes were formed when groups split off and migrated to new territory. Prior to the colonial era, some human development happened.
Contacts with Europeans
The slave and ivory markets were growing in the 1700s. Shaka, the Zulu Empire’s ruler, mobilized an army to oppose these demands. Conquered tribes advanced northwest into Botswana, killing everything in their route. Tribes started to barter ivory and skins for firearms with European merchants who had begun to enter the interior in their attempts to re-establish themselves towards the end of this era. Christian missionaries were also brought from Europe to the interior, sometimes at the request of tribal leaders who desired firearms and understood that the presence of missionaries encouraged merchants. By 1880, every large hamlet had a missionary on staff, and their impact was lasting. Botswana’s Christianization was completed under the reign of King Khama III (reigned 1875–1923). There were eight major tribes (or chiefdoms), the most powerful of which was the Bangwaketse.
Hostilities erupted in the late nineteenth century between Botswana’s Tswana people and Ndebele tribes making inroads into the region from the north-east. Tensions also rose with the arrival of Dutch Boer immigrants from the Transvaal to the east. On March 31, 1885, the British Government placed Bechuanaland under its protection after pleas from Batswana chiefs Khama III, Bathoen, and Sebele. The northern territory, known as the Bechuanaland Protectorate, is now modern-day Botswana, while the southern region, known as British Bechuanaland, became part of the Cape Colony and is today part of South Africa’s northwest province. Today, the bulk of Setswana-speaking people reside in South Africa.
The Bechuanaland Protectorate, Basutoland (now Lesotho), and Swaziland (the High Commission Territories) were not included when the Union of South Africa was established in 1910 out of the region’s major British possessions, although provision was made for their eventual inclusion. However, the UK started to consult their people, and although successive South African governments tried to have the territories transferred, the UK continued delaying; as a result, it never happened. The election of the Nationalist government in 1948, which established apartheid, and South Africa’s departure from the Commonwealth in 1961 effectively eliminated any possibility of the territories being included into South Africa.
The 1920 creation of two advisory bodies to represent both Africans and Europeans arose from the growth of British central power and the evolution of tribal governance. The African Council was made up of the leaders of the eight Tswana tribes as well as some elected members. In 1934, proclamations established tribal rule and authority. A European-African advising council was created in 1951, and a consultative legislative council was established in 1961 under the constitution.
The United Kingdom approved plans for democratic self-government in Botswana in June 1964. In 1965, the seat of government was relocated from Mafikeng, South Africa, to the newly formed Gaborone, which is close to Botswana’s border with South Africa. The 1965 constitution resulted in the first general elections and, on September 30, 1966, independence. Seretse Khama, a pioneer in the independence struggle and the rightful contender to the Ngwato chiefship, was chosen as the country’s first President and was re-elected twice.
Quett Masire, the current Vice-President, was elected in his own right in 1984 and re-elected in 1989 and 1994. Masire stepped down as president in 1998, and was replaced by Festus Mogae, who was elected in his own right in 1999 and re-elected in 2004. The presidency was handed on to Ian Khama (son of the first President) in 2008, who had been serving as Mogae’s Vice-President since quitting as Commander of the Botswana Defence Force in 1998 to take up this civilian post.
The International Court of Justice decided in December 1999 that Kasikili Island belonged to Botswana, resolving a long-running dispute over the northern boundary with Namibia’s Caprivi Strip.