Botswana: Political party formation and independence (1958-1966)

Extracted from: "Botswana" IN Compendium of Elections in Southern Africa (2002), edited by Tom Lodge, Denis Kadima and David Pottie, EISA, 37-39.

In comparison with the history of its immediate neighbours, Botswana's road to independence was a relatively peaceful one. In part this was because the country did not attract a European settler group politically powerful enough to challenge the development of black nationalism; in addition, the fact that Britain negotiated the transition to independence with a group of politicians who were supported in the process by the majority of the population made the process legitimate and peaceful.

The decolonisation of British-ruled territories was characterised by rounds of constitutional negotiations with nationalist forces, and Botswana was no exception. What does mark Botswana (or Bechuanaland as it was known before independence) out is the late introduction of a law-making body with African representation, and the late development of political parties. A legislative council (LEGCO) was only introduced in 1960, and independence came just six years later, in 1966. Elections based on universal suffrage were held for the first time the previous year.

Constitutional negotiations and the prospect of elections to LEGCO began to give rise to political parties. The first was the Bechuanaland Protectorate Federal Party, formed in 1959. The party pushed for greater African representation in LEGCO and sought the reduction of the influence of the chiefs. The party was not very successful but introduced a number of people who were later to lead their own parties, to the idea of party politics. Two such people, Philip Matante, and KT Motsete, along with Motsamai Mpho, formed the Bechuanaland People's Party (BPP). Whereas the Federal Party organised the educated elite, the BPP experimented with mass politics, organising large colourful gatherings. The party proposed immediate independence and rejected the constitutional compromise.

The government was concerned at the apparently radical nature of the BPP, and when the more moderate Bechuanaland Democratic Party (BDP) emerged in late 1961, it did everything it could to encourage its development. The BDP was led by Seretse Khama who, as the acknowledged (though uncrowned) leader of the BaNgwato, was able to garner a lot of support among the more traditional BaTswana. The party was not as radical as the BPP, but was careful not to be seen as too closely associated with the traditional power structures. The BDP was aided by internecine struggles within the BPP, which led the party to split between the Mpho and Matante factions. Consequently, the BDP was able to consolidate its position, and gained considerable support in the build up to the constitutional consultations of 1963.

When these came, it was clear that while the BDP appeared to have faith in the process, the BPP was very sceptical of it. This attitude damaged the BPP further as it was agreed during the negotiations that all privileges and separate representation should be dropped. In its place, a legislative assembly elected by universal adult suffrage was proposed. The principle of independence had been accepted and following the negotiations the parties began to compete with each other for electoral support.

The Democratic Party was aided by continued fighting within the BPP, which eventually led to the creation of a new party - the Botswana Independence Party (BIP). Furthermore, because of its moderate stance, the BDP was strongly supported by the European and Asian minorities, who feared the apparently more radical BPP. Helped by these two factors, the BDP emerged in the build up to the 1965 elections much better prepared. It put forward candidates in all thirty-one constituencies, while the other parties had difficulty finding enough suitable people.

The election campaign was concentrated mainly in the south, as it was believed that that was the most marginal area. The BPP felt secure in the northeast, while the BDP was confident about its support in the BaNgwato reserve. The results saw a landslide victory for the BDP (see 1965 National Assembly results for more detail). It captured 28 of the 31 seats. The remaining three seats were won by the BPP-Matante faction. The BIP won no seats. After the elections, in an effort to unite opposition against the Democratic Party, the Botswana National Front was formed. This was later to become the most significant opposition force.

As victors in the 1965 elections, the BDP led Botswana to independence in September 1966, and the leader of the BDP, Seretse Khama, became the first president of the republic.