Botswana is in the heart of Southern Africa. The territory is roughly triangular, measuring 600 miles (965 km) north to south and 600 miles east to west, with a sharp point on the eastern side. Its eastern and southern borders are defined by river courses and an old wagon road; its western borders are defined by longitude and latitude lines through the Kalahari; and its northern borders are defined by a combination of straight lines and a river course. Namibia borders it on the west and north, Zambia on the north in a narrow strip, Zimbabwe on the east, and South Africa on the east and south. The terrain is mostly an arid plateau (c.3,000 ft/910 m high), with hills to the east. The Kalahari Desert can be found to the south and west. The Okavango (Cubango) River drains into the vast Okavango Delta and Lake Ngami in the northwest, forming a vast marshland. Tsodilo Hills, at 1,489 meters, is Botswana’s highest point; at 513 meters, the Limpopo and Shashe Rivers meet. Gaborone’s capital and largest city are located in the district of the same name.
Botswana’s current population is 2,475,389 as of February 11, 2023, according to Worldometer’s elaboration of the most recent United Nations data. The majority of the people in the country are Tswana, who speak a Bantu language and are divided into eight major groups. There are also Kalanga, Basarwa, Kgalagadi, and other ethnic groups. The official language is English, but Tswana is also widely spoken. More than 70% of the population is Christian, with only about 10% practicing traditional practices. Tswana (Setswana, Sechuana) is widely spoken as the national language. English is the official language. The Khoisan people speak Khoe, or Khwe, and San languages. Kalanga, Sekgalagadi, Herero, Mbukushu, and Yei are among the other languages spoken in the country.
Mining, cattle, and tourism are the mainstays of the economy. Botswana’s GDP (purchasing power parity) per capita is expected to be around $18,113 in 2021, making it one of the highest in Africa. Botswana is the world’s largest diamond producer. Its relatively high gross national income per capita (fourth-largest in Africa, according to some estimates) provides the country with a relatively high standard of living and the highest Human Development Index of continental Sub-Saharan Africa. Agriculture accounted for the majority of the country’s GDP when it gained independence. Since then, the percentage has dropped to just 3%. The sector’s output is consumed locally. However, production is insufficient, as the country must import food from South Africa. Despite its small economic contribution to the overall economy, agriculture employs approximately 80% of the rural population and provides at least 15% of formal employment opportunities in the country.
Botswana’s history is, in general, the history of the Kalahari region, which lies between the more populated savannas of the north and east and the less populated steppes of the south and west. Botswana has been a central area of historical development at times, despite being reduced to a peripheral role in Southern Africa for the majority of the twentieth century. Modern human evidence, such as cave paintings, is approximately 73,000 years old. The forefathers of today’s San (“Bushmen”) and Khoi peoples are thought to be the earliest known inhabitants of southern Africa. Both groups speak click languages, which were developed by members of the small Khoe-Kwadi, Kx’a, and Tuu families who hunted, gathered, and traded over long distances.
In 1867-69, white miners and prospectors flooded Botswana to begin deep gold mining at Tati near Francistown. However, the gold rush was short-lived, and from 1871, the diamond mines at Kimberley, south of Botswana, became Southern Africa’s first major industrial area. Migrant laborers from Botswana and other northern countries flocked to Kimberley, and later to the Transvaal gold mines. The 1880s “scramble for Africa” resulted in German colonization of South West Africa. The new German colony threatened to join the Transvaal’s independent Boer republic across the Kalahari. The British declared a protectorate over their Tswana allies and the Kalahari as far north as the Ngwato in 1885, which was later extended to the Tawana and the Chobe River in 1890.
North of 22 degrees was added to the new Bechuanaland Protectorate in 1890. During the 1890s, the new territory was divided into eight distinct reserves, with only a small portion of land remaining freehold for white settlers. The British government decided to hand over the Bechuanaland Protectorate to the British South Africa Company in the early 1890s. South Africa’s annexation attempts, however, were thwarted by British insistence on first consulting the people of Bechuanaland. The rise of South Africa’s National Party in 1948, and its pursuit of apartheid, polarized British opinion against the incorporation of Bechuanaland into South Africa. Although there was no nationalist movement in Bechuanaland, Britain granted it internal self-government in 1965 and full independence as Botswana on September 30, 1966. Botswana was admitted to the United Nations shortly after.
- Capital City:
total: 581,730 sq km
land: 566,730 sq km
water: 15,000 sq km
- Land boundaries:
Total: 4,347.15 km
- Border countries (4):
Namibia 1,544 km,
South Africa 1,969 km,
Zambia 0.15 km,
Zimbabwe 834 km
Coastline: 0 km
- Total: 4,347.15 km
Warm winters and hot summers
Predominantly flat to gently rolling tableland;
The Kalahari Desert in southwest
Mean elevation: 1,013 m
Elevation extremes: lowest point: junction of the Limpopo and Shashe Rivers 513 m
Highest point: Tsodilo Hills 1,489 m
- Natural resources:
Diamonds, copper, nickel, salt, soda ash, potash, coal, iron ore, silver
- Land use:
Agricultural land: 45.8%
Arable land 0.6%; permanent crops 0%; permanent pasture 45.2%
Other: 34.4% (2011 est.)
- Irrigated land:
20 sq km (2012)
- Population – distribution:
The population is primarily concentrated in the east with a focus on and around the capital of Gaborone, and the far central-eastern city of Francistown; population density remains low in other areas in the country, especially in the Kalahari to the west.
- Natural hazards:
Periodic droughts; seasonal August winds blow from the west, carrying sand and dust across the country, which can obscure visibility.
People and Society
Botswana has experienced one of the most rapid declines in fertility in sub-Saharan Africa. The total fertility rate has fallen from more than 5 children per woman in the mid-1980s to approximately 2.4 in 2021. The fertility reduction has been attributed to a host of factors, including higher educational attainment among women, greater participation of women in the workforce, increased contraceptive use, later first births, and a strong national family planning program. Botswana was making significant progress in several health indicators, including life expectancy and infant and child mortality rates, until being devastated by the HIV/AIDs epidemic in the 1990s.
Batswana have been working as contract miners in South Africa since the 19th century. Although Botswana’s economy improved shortly after independence in 1966 with the discovery of diamonds and other minerals, its lingering high poverty rate and lack of job opportunities continued to push workers to seek mining work in southern African countries. In the early 1970s, about a third of Botswana’s male labor force worked in South Africa (lesser numbers went to Namibia and Zimbabwe). Not until the 1980s and 1990s, when South African mining companies had reduced their recruitment of foreign workers and Botswana’s economic prospects had improved, were Batswana increasingly able to find job opportunities at home.
Most Batswana prefer life in their home country and choose cross-border migration on a temporary basis only for work, shopping, visiting family, or tourism. Since the 1970s, Botswana has pursued an open migration policy enabling it to recruit thousands of foreign workers to fill skilled labor shortages. In the late 1990s, Botswana’s prosperity and political stability attracted not only skilled workers but small numbers of refugees from neighboring Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe.
Motswana (singular), Batswana (plural)
- Ethnic groups:
Tswana (or Setswana) 79%, Kalanga 11%, Basarwa 3%, other, including Kgalagadi and white 7%
Setswana 77.3%, Sekalanga 7.4%, Shekgalagadi 3.4%, English (official) 2.8%, Zezuru/Shona 2%, Sesarwa 1.7%, Sembukushu 1.6%, Ndebele 1%, other 2.8% (2011 est.)
Christian 79.1%, Badimo 4.1%, other 1.4% (includes Baha’i, Hindu, Muslim, Rastafarian), none 15.2%, unspecified 0.3% (2011 est.)
Botswana’s main ethnic groups are the Tswana, Kalanga, Batswapong, Babirwa, Basarwa or Bushmen, Bayei, Hambukushu, Basubia, Baherero, and Bakgalagadi. The Tswana, which is the largest ethnic group has eight tribes or sub-groups which are Bamangwato, Bakwena, Bangwaketse, Batawana, Batlokwa, Bakgatla, Barolong, and Balete.
In addition, there are other groups in the minority including whites and Indians. There also exist settlers from neighboring countries from Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Namibia, and Angola to add to the cultural mix. Collectively, all of these ethnic groups are referred to as Batswana; people of Botswana. From this ethnic mix-up has turned out a Motswana who is humble, respectful, re-conciliatory and peaceful, courteous, friendly, jovial, and above all….hospitable.
About 70% of the country’s religious people are Christians with the main denominations being the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, and Zion Christian Church. In the last Botswana census conducted in 2001, there were more than 5,000 Muslims, 3,000 Hindus, and 7,000 Baha’i.
The traditional spiritual practices of initiation ceremonies exist and are being revived. These are called Bogwera’ for men and ‘Bojale’ for women. During periods of poor rains, there is a spiritual rain-making ceremony called ‘go Fetlha pula’ to invoke rain. Much of the landscape in Botswana holds a spiritual and mysterious feel that resonates with its people. Places like the Tsodilo Hills, Okavango Delta, and the Kalahari Desert have a strong spiritual feel about them that has a humbling effect.
Education in Botswana is free, but it is not compulsory. The Ministry of Education has authority over all of Botswana’s educational structure except the University of Botswana. The educational structure mirrors that of the United Kingdom: there is universal access to primary and junior secondary school, but a process of academic selectivity reduces the entrance to the senior secondary school and the university. However, educational curricula incorporate prevocational preparation in junior and senior secondary schools.
Botswana’s education system was comprised of seven years of primary education, three years of junior secondary education, and two years of senior secondary education. Each year at the primary level is a Standard, and each second level is a Form. This system was implemented in 1995 as a result of a 1993 National Education Commission study. Botswana’s basic education program is comprised of the primary and junior secondary levels.
Primary education is the most important stage in the educational system, and the government strives to make this level of education accessible to everyone. One central objective of primary education is for children to be literate first in Setswana and then in English. From 1991 to 1997, the number of students completing the primary level and entering junior secondary increased from 65.0 percent to 98.5 percent. Completing the Junior Certificate program may lead to admission to the senior secondary school program. Only those pupils whose grades are high enough on the Junior Certificate Examination are admitted to the senior secondary program.
Botswana’s first educational policy, called Education for Kagisano (Social Harmony), guided the country’s educational development and administration from 1977 to 1993. In the early 1990s, the recognition that the country’s socio-economic situation had changed significantly resulted in a review of policies and strategies for Botswana’s educational development.
The Botswana Training Authority regulates the standard of vocational training across the entire spectrum, in order to promote the development of an integrated system that’s accessible to all. Botswana EducationThere is a variety of tertiary education institutions in Botswana, including colleges of accounting and agriculture, and institutes of administration, commerce, and health sciences.
Chief among these is the University of Botswana opened in 1964. It has over 17,000 students spread across its faculties of business, education, engineering & technology, humanities, science, and social sciences. Programs include certificates, and bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees.
The education system makes minimal provisions for children with disabilities. Few disabled children are integrated with regular school classes, and there is a limited special education curriculum. Parents must pay fees to nongovernmental organizations if their special needs children are educated. However, the government has committed to intensifying efforts to educate these children by paying the nongovernmental organizations’ fees.
Since gaining independence from Britain, Botswana has been one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, averaging 5% per annum over the past decade. Even during the global recession, Botswana maintained one of the world’s highest economic growth rates since its independence in 1966. Diamond mining fueled much of the economic expansion and currently accounts for one-quarter of GDP, approximately 85% of export earnings, and about one-third of the government’s revenues. Its reliance on commodities renders it vulnerable to international market fluctuations. Economic activity is expected to intensify to 4.5% in 2017, up to 4.8% by 2019. Economic growth will be driven by the mining activity, construction, services sector, and intensified public investments.
Tourism is the secondary earner of foreign exchange and many Batswana engage in tourism-related services, subsistence farming, and cattle rearing. Through fiscal discipline and sound management, Botswana transformed itself from one of the poorest countries in the world to a middle-income country with a per capita GDP of approximately $18,100 in 2017. Botswana also ranks as one of the least corrupt and best places to do business in sub-Saharan Africa. Botswana’s economy closely follows global economic trends because of its heavy reliance on a single luxury export. According to official government statistics, unemployment is around 20%, but unofficial estimates run much higher.
Botswana’s economy recovered from the 2008 global recession in 2010 but has only grown modestly since then, primarily due to the downturn in the global diamond market, though water and power shortages also played a role. The prevalence of HIV/AIDS is the second highest in the world and threatens the country’s impressive economic gains. Diamond exports increased again in 2017 to the highest levels since 2013 at about 22 million carats of output, driving Botswana’s economic growth of about 4.5% in 2017 and increasing foreign reserves to about 45% of GDP.
The National Budget for 2018/19 was passed. Presented to Parliament on February 5, 2018, the new budget puts total expenditure and net lending at P67.87 billion (33.4% of gross domestic product (GDP)), an increase of P8.3 billion (1.3%) compared to the previous fiscal year. The (capital) budget is P19.31 billion, up by P2.4 billion (16.6%) over the previous fiscal year. A budget deficit of P3.59 billion (1.8% of GDP) is expected despite the positive domestic economic outlook.
- GDP (purchasing power parity):
$39.55 billion (2017 est.)
$37.86 billion (2016 est.)
$36.3 billion (2015 est.)
note: data are in 2017 dollars
- Real GDP:
$16.73 billion (2017 est.)
- GDP – real growth rate:
4.5% (2017 est.)
4.3% (2016 est.)
-1.7% (2015 est.)
- GDP – per capita (PPP):
$2,700 (2017 est.)
$2,600 (2016 est.)
$2,500 (2015 est.)
- Gross national saving:
$18,100 (2017 est.)
$17,600 (2016 est.)
$17,000 (2015 est.)
- GDP – composition, by sector of origin:
services: 69.1% (2017 est.)
- Agriculture – products:
livestock, sorghum, maize, millet, beans, sunflowers, groundnuts
diamonds, copper, nickel, salt, soda ash, potash, coal, iron ore, silver; beef processing; textiles
Population below the poverty line:
30.3% (2009 est.)
revenues: $5.609 billion
expenditures: $6.072 billion (2017 est.)
Agriculture only comprises approximately 2.4% of GDP, but it is vital to the livelihood of many citizens of Botswana who operate farms for subsistence. Livestock production, especially cattle, contributes an estimated 80% to the agricultural GDP. President Khama has directed the Ministry of Agricultural Development and Food Security to increase domestic food production, and ministry officials report they are developing an incentives package to attract investors and improve commercial viability in the sector.
Livestock and cattle raising and grazing is by far Botswana’s primary agricultural product and export. The cattle population is currently estimated at 2.1 million. Livestock production exceeds domestic needs and the country has exported range-fed beef to the European Union. The development of a modern cattle farming and slaughter industry (and the corresponding development of a market for U.S. feedstocks, ingredients, and technology) is limited by the government’s monopoly on meat processing plants, exports, livestock prices, as well as outbreaks of Foot and Mouth Disease, especially in the northeastern part of the country. The GOB is seeking new market opportunities abroad with a particular interest in the Middle East market.
The crop sub-sector is dominated by the growth of cereals but is limited by constrained productivity in the sector, unreliable water supply, and the fact that desert and poor soils cover 70% of the country. In 2015/2016, national cereal production totaled 54,374 metric tons (MT), supplying only 18% of domestic demand. Sorghum comprises 72% of national cereal production, followed by maize (17%) and millet (6%). Botswana also produced 14,000 MT of beans, 2,000 MT of groundnuts, and 1,800 MT of sunflowers in 2015. Horticulture production is focused in the southeast, with a small annual production valued at $14 million in 2013, primarily consisting of potatoes, tomatoes, cabbage, and oranges.
Botswana consumes about 4,000 tons of fish per year and out of this quantity only 300 tons are produced locally and 3,700 tons are imported from neighboring countries. Efforts to augment fish production through aquaculture, such as the construction of fish hatcheries to supply fish seed to over-fished reservoirs, are being explored and may provide a niche market for incoming investors. The sector also supplies raw materials for agro-based industries such as meat processing, tanning, milling, oil, soap, and brewing.
Banking and Finance
Botswana’s banking sector consists of a central bank (Bank of Botswana) and nine commercial banks: Barclays Bank Botswana, Standard Chartered Bank Botswana, First National Bank Botswana, Bank of Baroda Botswana Ltd., Stanbic Bank Botswana, Capital Bank, African Banking Corporation, Bank Gaborone, State Bank of India, and Bank of India. All nine banks are either majority or wholly foreign-owned. While Barclays remains Botswana’s largest bank, First National Bank Botswana, growing rapidly, has overtaken Standard Chartered as the second largest.
There are a growing number of investment and corporate finance institutions, including the African Banking Corporation of Botswana, Andisa Bank, Investec Group, and Mazars Corporate Finance, which specialize in structured trade finance, treasury operations, and investment banking. All are geared towards financing existing and new businesses. However, most commercial banks do not finance start-ups but rather finance existing businesses either for expansion or acquisition, and also have high collateral requirements that make it difficult for many to access their financing. The financial institutions are now improving the range of services they provide, including a new emphasis on small and medium-sized enterprises. In 2008 the government established the Non-Banking Financial Institution Regulatory Authority to ensure that the non-banking financial sector operates in an efficient and orderly manner.
The central bank, known as the Bank of Botswana, is responsible for monetary policies, central banking services, supervision of financial institutions, issuing of bank notes, implementing exchange rate policies, administering exchange controls, and foreign exchange reserves management. The bank’s financial statements comply with international standards. Short-term finance, including pre-and post-shipment credit, is readily available through the commercial banking system at market rates of interest. Export credit insurance is available through the Botswana Export Credit Insurance (BECI) agency.
The provisions for the U.S. and other foreign firms borrowing in Botswana are liberal while local banks remain highly liquid. The country’s commercial banks, however, have difficulty making long-term credit available due to the short-maturity nature of their deposits and small capital bases.
Manufacturing in Botswana contributes over 4% of the country’s GDP (2012). The diamond industry, including processing and mining, employs over 10,000 people in the country, and manufacturing as a whole employs over 35,000 workers (Botswana Central Statistics Office 2009). As a whole, Botswana’s manufacturing sector is a growing market. Manufacturing employment and production have risen steadily since 2001, apart from a small dip in 2007 which was largely due to the emerging global financial crisis. Botswana’s industry and manufacturing appear to have recovered and continue to increase in both profitability and production. Botswana is rated 56 out of 185 countries by the World Bank for ease of doing business, a ranking based on how conducive the regulatory environment is to the opening and operation of a local firm.
The main manufacturing processes include diamond processing, food processing (predominantly beef), textiles, and mining. The processing of diamonds has become an increasingly important industry since the De Beers diamond corporation opened a plant in Botswana in 2008. In 2013, diamond mining and processing contributed 50% of government revenue and was Botswana’s major generator of foreign currency. Botswana has two major diamond mines in Debswana and Bamangwato. Botswana’s diamond reserves will at some point run out and other manufacturing contingencies will need to be put in place before this happens. One way the government expects the diamond industry will survive is through Botswana’s well-integrated and skilled diamond cutting and polishing trade.
Assets that are helpful to Botswana’s continued to trade and growth in the industrial sector are a low corporate tax rate of 15% and no prohibitions on the foreign ownership of companies. Inflation also remains stable at a moderate 8%. The Government of Botswana has introduced policies such as a new Foreign Direct Investment Strategy and a National Export Development Strategy to sustain competitiveness in an increasingly difficult market and to continue to compete with neighboring countries.
The 2013 Global Competitiveness Report scores and ranks the sophistication of production processes around the world, where a low country score of 1 means “no sophistication and labor-intensive” and a high score of 7 means production processes are the “world’s best and apply the most efficient technologies”. In this respect, Botswana ranks 79 out of 144 countries with a score of 4.06. At this level, Botswana ranks above many of its African counterparts, although it falls behind neighbor South Africa which is ranked 43 with a score of 4.2.
- Electricity access:
population without electricity: 700,000
electrification – total population: 66%
electrification – urban areas: 75%
electrification – rural areas: 54% (2013)
- Electricity – production:
2.789 billion kWh (2015 est.)
- Electricity – consumption:
3.722 billion kWh (2015 est.)
- Electricity – exports:
0 kWh (2016 est.)
Electricity – imports:
1.468 billion kWh (2015 est.)
- Electricity – installed generating capacity:
134,000 kW (2015 est.)
- Electricity – from fossil fuels:
98.5% of total installed capacity (2015 est.)
- Electricity – from nuclear fuels:
0% of total installed capacity (2015 est.)
- Telephones – fixed lines:
total subscriptions: 142,122
subscriptions per 100 inhabitants: 6 (July 2016 est.)
- Telephones – mobile cellular:
subscriptions per 100 inhabitants: 148 (July 2016 est.)
- Internet country code:
- Internet users:
percent of the population: 39.4% (July 2016 est.)
Botswana is widely regarded as having some of the best wilderness and wildlife areas on the African continent. With a full 38 percent of its total land area devoted to national parks, reserves, and wildlife management areas for the most part unfenced, allowing animals to roam wild and free – travel through many parts of the country has the feeling of moving through an immense Nature wonderland.
Botswana is a rarity in our overpopulated, overdeveloped world. It is one of the last great refuges for Nature’s magnificent pageantry of life. The experience here the stunning beauty of the world’s largest intact inland Delta the Okavango; the unimaginable vastness of the world’s second-largest game reserve the Central Kalahari Game Reserve; the isolation and other-worldliness of the Makgadikgadi uninhabited pans the size of Portugal; and the astoundingly prolific wildlife of the Chobe National Park. Botswana is the last stronghold for a number of endangered bird and mammal species, including Wild Dog, Cheetah, Brown Hyena, Cape Vulture, Wattled Crane, Kori Bustard, and Pel’s Fishing Owl. This makes the safari experience even more memorable, and at times you will feel simply surrounded by wild animals.
The first and most lasting impressions will be of vast expanses of uninhabited wilderness stretching from horizon to horizon, the sensation of limitless space, astoundingly rich wildlife and bird viewing, night skies littered with stars and heavenly bodies of unimaginable brilliance, and stunning sunsets of unearthly beauty. As well, with more and more cultural tourism options on offer, you will be charmed by the people of Botswana, visiting their villages and experiencing firsthand their rich cultural heritage. But perhaps most of all, Botswana’s greatest gift is its ability to put us in touch with our natural selves.
Botswana has a premier Southern African safari destination offering some of the best wildlife viewings on the planet, especially in and around the Chobe and Okavango Delta regions. The Kalahari Desert with its San Bushman culture is another Botswanan highlight that deserves a place on your itinerary. Check out this list of top attractions for more ideas about what to see and where to go to Botswana.
Chobe National Park lies in Botswana’s Okavango Delta and covers four distinct ecosystems. The SavutiMarsh, in particular, offers some of the highest concentrations of wildlife in Africa year-round. Chobe boasts around 120,000 elephants.
The Okavango River cuts through the center of the Kalahari Desert, creating a unique inland water system that gives life to a huge variety of birds and animals.
Tsodilo Hills is a spiritual outdoor art gallery, showcasing more than 4,000 ancient San Bushmen rock paintings. There are around 400 sites depicting hunting scenes, ritual dances, and typical safari animals.
The Nxai Pan National Park is a spectacular destination for a safari. The scenery is the main draw here, with wonderful sand dunes, towering baobab trees, and of course the salt pans themselves. When flooded, the pans also offer tremendous birding and game-viewing opportunities.
The Tuli Block is a wildlife-rich area in eastern Botswana that borders South Africa and Zimbabwe at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe Rivers. It was once an area of private farms, but a few decades ago it made more economic sense to transform the land into a wildlife sanctuary.
Salt pans, Kalahari sand dunes, and plenty of wildlife during the rainy season make this a wonderful park to visit during the summer months (January – April). But it’s not easy to get to, especially from the Botswana side.
Mokolodi is a short drive from Botswana’s capital Gaborone and makes for a great day trip. Mokolodi is a private reserve dedicated to conservation education so when you visit, don’t be surprised to see excited school children out on a field trip
Archaeological digs have shown that hominids have lived in Botswana for around two million years. Stone tools and faunal remains have shown that all areas of the country were inhabited at least 400,000 years ago. Evidence left by modern humans such as cave paintings is about 73,000 years old. The original inhabitants of southern Africa were the Bushmen (San) and Khoi peoples. Both speak Khoisan languages and hunted, gathered, and trade over long distances. When cattle were first introduced about 2000 years ago into southern Africa, pastoralism became a major feature of the economy, since the region had large grasslands free of the tsetse fly.
The history of Botswana covers a gap between the histories of neighboring South Africa and Zimbabwe, Namibia, Angola, and Zambia. In prehistoric and very recent times the Kalahari thirstlands of Botswana have been central in the historical geography of the region, as the intermediate territory between the savannas of the north and east and the steppes of the south and west. Khoesan-speaking hunters and herders, People speaking Khoesan (Kehoe and San) languages, have lived in Botswana for many thousands of years. A site in the Tsodilo Hills (Depression Shelter), in the north-western corner of Botswana, contains archaeological evidence of continuous Khoesan occupation from about 17 000 BC. to about 1650 AD.
For most of that period, Khoesan people subsisted as hunters and gatherers, their tools made of stone (and wood and bone), with a culture characterized by archaeologists as the ‘Later Stone Age’. Their hunting and gathering lifestyle was adapted to seasonal mobility in family groups over grassland and scrub, in and around the extensive riverine lakes and wetlands that once covered the north of the country and were dotted elsewhere.
During the last centuries, BC many Khoe-speaking people in northern Botswana converted their lifestyle to pastoralism – herding cattle and sheep on the rich pastures exposed by the retreating wetlands of the Okavango Delta and Makgadikgadi lakes. Cattle and sheep had been brought from East Africa, where they had previously been herded by other Later Stone Age people for thousands of years. Some Khoe pastoralists migrated with their livestock through central Namibia as far south as they could, to the Cape of Good Hope, by about 70 BC. They took the Khoe language to areas where only San languages had previously been spoken.
The Arrival of Bantu People
During the final centuries of the last millennium before the Common Era, some of the Khoi (Tshu-khwe) people of northern Botswana converted to pastoralism, herding their cattle and sheep on the rich pastures revealed by the retreating lakes and wetlands. Both farming of grain crops and the speaking of Bantu languages were carried southwards from north of the Equator over the course of millennia. From West Africa, Later Stone Age farming reached Angola and had been converted to the use of iron tools on the upper Zambezi by around 380 BC. From East Africa, Early Iron Age farming spread down the savanna to the Zambezi by around 20 B.C., as well as along the east coast. The farmers brought with them the speaking of western and eastern Bantu languages.
It took hundreds of years for Iron Age farming culture and Bantu languages to replace the Khoe pastoral culture in the Okavango-Makgadikgadi area. As early as 200 BC people there were making a kind of pottery known as Bambatha ware, which archaeologists think was Khoe pottery influenced by (western) Iron Age styles. Khoe language was being spoken by pastoralists in the area, on the Boteti River, as late as the 19th century, within recent living memory.
The earliest dated Iron Age site in Botswana is an iron smelting furnace in the Tswapong hills near Palapye, dated around 190 AD – probably associated with eastern Iron Age Bantu farming culture from the Limpopo valley. Meanwhile farming culture of the western Iron Age type spread through northern and south-eastern Botswana. The remains of beehive-shaped small houses made of grass matting, occupied by western Early Iron Age farmers, have been dated from about 420 AD around Molepolole, and a similar site in the western Transvaal near Pretoria has been dated as early as 300.
The ancestors of the modern-day Kalanga moved into what is now the northeastern areas of the country. This proto-Kalanga was closely connected to states in Zimbabwe as well as to the Mapungubwe state. These states, located outside of current Botswana’s borders, appear to have kept massive cattle herds in what is now the Central District—apparently at numbers approaching modern cattle density. This massive cattle-raising complex prospered until 1300 AD or so and seems to have regressed following the collapse of Mapungubwe. During this era, the first Tswana-speaking groups, the Bakgalagadi, moved into the southern areas of the Kalahari.
From about 850 CE farmers from the upper Zambezi, ancestors of the Mbukushu and Yei peoples reached as far south and west as the Tsodilo Hills (Nqoma). The oral traditions of Herero and Mbanderu pastoralists, west of the Okavango, relate how they were split apart from their Mbandu parent stock by 17th-century Tswana cattle-raiding from the south.
The turn of the 11th Century, Botswana saw the rise of a new culture, characterized by a site on Moritsane hill near Gabane, whose pottery mixed the old western style with new Iron Age influences derived from the eastern Transvaal (Lydenburg culture). The Moritsane culture is historically associated with the Khalagari (Kgalagadi) chiefdoms, the westernmost dialect-group of Sotho (or Sotho-Tswana) speakers, whose prowess was in cattle raising and hunting rather than in farming.
During the 13th and 14th centuries, a number of powerful dynasties began to emerge among the Tswana in the western Transvaal region. Rolong chiefdoms spread westward over lands controlled by Khalagari peoples. Khalagari chiefdoms either accepted Rolong rulers or moved westward across the Kalahari.
The main Tswana dynasties of the Hurutshe, Kwena, and Kgatla were derived from the Phofu dynasty, which broke up in its home in the western Transvaal region in the 16th century. The archaeology of the Transvaal region shows that, after about 1700, stone-walled villages and some large towns developed on hills. These states were probably competing for cattle wealth and subject populations, for control of hunting and mineral tribute, and for control of trade with the east coast.
The first written records relating to modern-day Botswana appear in 1824. What these records show is that the Bangwaketse had become the predominant power in the region. Under the rule of Makaba II, the Bangwaketse kept vast herds of cattle in well-protected desert areas and used their military prowess to raid their neighbors. Other chiefdoms in the area, by this time, had capitals of 10,000 or so and were fairly prosperous. This equilibrium came to end during the Mfecane period, 1823-1843, when a succession of invading peoples from South Africa entered the country.
Although the Bangwaketse were able to defeat the invading Bakololo in 1826, over time all the major chiefdoms in Botswana were attacked, weakened, and impoverished. The Bakololo and Amandebele raided repeatedly and took large numbers of cattle, women, and children from the Batswana—most of whom were driven into the desert or sanctuary areas such as hilltops and caves. Only after 1843, when the Amandebele moved into western Zimbabwe, did this threat subside.
The Tswana states of the Ngwaketse, Kwena, Ngwato, and Ngwato were reconstituted in the 1840s after the wars passed. The states took firm control of commoners and subject peoples, organized inwards under their own chiefs paying tribute to the king. The states competed with each other to benefit from the increasing trade in ivory and ostrich feathers being carried by wagons down new roads to Cape Colony in the south. Those roads also brought Christian missionaries to Botswana and Boer trekkers who settled in the Transvaal to the east of Botswana.
The most remarkable Tswana king of this period was Sechele (ruled 1829-92) of the Kwena around Molepolole. He allied himself with British traders and missionaries and was baptized by David Livingstone (see Links for a link to the free electronic text of his classic Missionary Travels). He also fought with the Boers, who tried to seize Africans who fled to join Sechele’s state from the Transvaal. But by the later 1870s, the Kwena had lost control of trade to the Ngwato, under Khama III (ruled 1875-1923), whose power extended to the frontiers of the Tawana in the north-west, the Lozi in the north and the Ndebele in the north-east.
During the 1840s and 1850s trade with Cape Colony-based, merchants opened up and enabled the Batswana chiefdoms to rebuild. The Bakwena, Bangwaketse, Bangwato, and Batawana cooperated to control the lucrative ivory trade and then used the proceeds to import horses and guns, which in turn enabled them to establish control over what is now Botswana. This process was largely complete by 1880, and thus the Bushmen, the Bakalanga, the Bakgalagadi, and other current minorities were subjugated by the Batswana.
Following the Great Trek, Afrikaners from the Cape Colony established themselves on the borders of Botswana in the Transvaal. In 1852 a coalition of Tswana chiefdoms led by Sechele I resisted Afrikaner incursions, and after about eight years of intermittent tensions and hostilities, eventually came to a peace agreement in Potchefstroom in 1860. From that point on, the modern-day border between South Africa and Botswana was agreed on, and the Afrikaners and Batswana traded and worked together peacefully.
Due to newly peaceful conditions, trade thrived between 1860 and 1880. Taking advantage of this were Christian missionaries. The Lutherans and the London Missionary Society both became established in the country by 1856. By 1880 every major village had a resident missionary, and their influence slowly became felt. Khama III (reigned 1875–1923) was the first of the Tswana chiefs to make Christianity a state religion and changed a great deal of Tswana customary law as a result. Christianity became the de facto official religion in all the chiefdoms in World War I.
The new Bechuanaland
The “scramble for Africa” in the 1880s resulted in the German colonization of South West Africa. The new German colony threatened to join across the Kalahari with the independent Boer republic of the Transvaal. The British in the Cape Colony responded by using their missionary and trade connections with the Tswana states to keep the roads through Botswana open for British expansion to Zimbabwe and the Zambezi. In 1885 the British proclaimed a protectorate over their Tswana allies and the Kalahari as far north as the Ngwato; the protectorate was extended to the Tawana and the Chobe River in 1890.
In 1890 areas north of 22 degrees were added to the new Bechuanaland Protectorate. During the 1890s the new territory was divided into eight different reserves, with fairly small amounts of land being left as freehold for white settlers. During the early 1890s, the British government decided to hand over the Bechuanaland Protectorate to the British South Africa Company. This plan, which was well on its way to fruition despite the entreaties of Tswana leaders who toured England in protest, was eventually foiled by the failure of the Jameson Raid in January 1896.
When the Union of South Africa was formed in 1910 from the main British colonies in the region, the Bechuanaland Protectorate, Basutoland (now Lesotho), and Swaziland (the High Commission Territories) were not included, but the provision was made for their later incorporation. However, the UK began to consult with their inhabitants as to their wishes. Although successive South African governments sought to have the territories transferred to their jurisdiction, the UK kept delaying; consequently, it never occurred. The election of the Nationalist government in 1948, which instituted apartheid, and South Africa’s withdrawal from the Commonwealth in 1961, ended any prospect of the UK or these territories agreeing to incorporation into South Africa.
An expansion of British central authority and the evolution of tribal government resulted in the 1920 establishment of two advisory councils to represent both Africans and Europeans. The African Council consisted of the eight heads of the Tswana tribes and some elected members. Proclamations in 1934 regulated tribal rule and powers. A European-African advisory council was formed in 1951, and the 1961 constitution established a consultative legislative council.
The extent of the Bechuanaland Protectorate’s subordination to the interests of South Africa was revealed in 1950. In a case that caused political controversy in Britain and the empire, the British government barred Seretse Khama from the chieftainship of the Ngwato and exiled him from Botswana for six years. This, as secret documents have since confirmed, was in order to satisfy the South African government, which objected to Seretse Khama’s marriage to a white Englishwoman at a time when racial segregation was being reinforced in South Africa under apartheid.
From the later 1950s, it became clear that Bechuanaland could no longer be handed over to South Africa, and must be developed towards political and economic self-sufficiency. The supporters of Seretse Khama began to organize political movements from 1952 onwards, and there was a nationalist spirit even among older ‘tribal’ leaders. Ngwato ‘tribal’ negotiations for the start of copper mining reached an agreement in 1959. A legislative council was eventually set up in 1961 after limited national elections. The Bechuanaland People’s Party (BPP) was founded in 1960, and the Bechuanaland Democratic Party (later Botswana Democratic Party, BDP) – led by Seretse Khama – in 1962.
After long resistance to constitutional advance before economic development could pay for it, n June 1964, the United Kingdom accepted proposals for democratic self-government in Botswana. The seat of government was moved in 1965 from Mafikeng in South Africa to the newly established Gaborone, which is located near Botswana’s border with South Africa. Based on the 1965 constitution, the country held its first general elections under universal suffrage and gained independence on 30 September 1966. Seretse Khama, a leader in the independence movement and the legitimate claimant to the Ngwato chiefship, was elected as the first President, and subsequently re-elected twice.
A new administrative capital was rapidly built at Gaborone. Bechuanaland became self-governing in 1965, under an elected BDP government under Seretse Khama as prime minister. In 1966 the country became the Republic of Botswana, with Seretse Khama as its first president.
For its first five years of political independence, Botswana remained financially dependent on Britain to cover the full cost of administration and development. The planning and execution of economic development took off in 1967-71 after the discovery of diamonds at Orapa. The essential precondition of this was a renegotiation of the customs union with South Africa so that state revenue would benefit from rising capital imports and mineral exports – rather than remaining a fixed percentage of total customs union income. This renegotiation was achieved in 1969.
The presidency passed to the sitting Vice-President, Quett Masire, who was elected in his own right in 1984 and re-elected in 1989 and 1994. Masire retired from office in 1998. He was succeeded by Festus Mogae, who was elected in his own right in 1999 and re-elected in 2004. The presidency passed in 2008 to Ian Khama (son of the first President), who had been serving as Mogae’s Vice-President since resigning his position in 1998 as Commander of the Botswana Defence Force to take up this civilian role.