Botswana History

The first people to inhabit the empty Kalahari some 30 000 years ago were the San - also known as the Bushmen. They number only about 55 000 today, constituting a small but fascinating cultural minority in the country. From the 15th century the Tswana people arrived, collectively called the Batswana (the word today refers to anyone living in Botswana). By the 18th century, these people had established a powerful highly structured society of towns ruled by monarchs who controlled hunting, cattle-breeding and copper mining. The European Christian missionaries who pitched up in the early 1800s were most impressed with the orderliness and structure of the town-based Batswana people.

The Zulu wars of the early 1800s in what is now South Africa produced a wave of northbound migration into Botswana land. Meanwhile, the Boers began their Great Trek over the Vaal, crossing into Botswana and attempting to impose white rule on the inhabitants. By 1877, animosity had escalated to such a level that the British stepped in and the first Boer War erupted in the Transvaal. The Boers retreated further into Botswana in 1882, prompting the Batswana leaders to ask for British protection. The British agreed and drew up borders. In 1885 they declared the northern territory as a British protectorate known as Bechuanaland, today’s Botswana. The southern territory became part of the Cape Colony and is now part of the Northwest Province of South Africa. The majority of Setswana-speaking people today live in South Africa. Bechuanaland was eventually brought under full British colonial control in 1890, when the British South Africa Company was established to supervise the whole region. Later in 1909 Bechuanaland, along with Lesotho and Swaziland, declined to become included in the Union of South Africa.

Nationalism built during the 1950s and 1960s, and as early as 1955 it had become apparent that Britain was preparing to release its grip. Following South Africa’s Sharpeville Massacre of 1960, the Bechuanaland People’s Party (BPP) was formed with independence as its aim. Despite Bechuanaland being dependent on South Africa for food imports and on the wages of Botswana miners working in South Africa for income, the BPP opposed apartheid as well as the Smith regime in neighbouring Rhodesia. In 1964, Britain accepted the BPP’s proposals for the independent democratic self-government of the newly-named Botswana, the seat of government was moved from Mafikeng in South Africa to the new capital of Gaborone in 1965, and independence was achieved by 1966. Seretse Khama was the first president who was subsequently re-elected until he died in office in 1980. He was succeeded by Ketumile Masire who was president from 1980-1998, and the current president is Festus Mogae.

Botswana was economically transformed by the discovery of diamonds in 1967 - the diamond mines of Orapa, Letlhakane, and Jwaneng together make up one of the largest reserves of diamonds in the world. This mineral wealth has provided the country with enormous foreign currency reserves, pushing the pula to its position as one of Africa’s strongest currencies. Botswana has always been a peaceful and safe country, and the vast majority of travellers to Botswana have nothing but praise for it.

Read more up on our featured Botswana destinations, parks and reserves or activities, or simply browse our Botswana overland tours.