The politics of bachelorhood


Botswana's President Seretse Khama Ian Khama.

What you need to know:

  • Ian Khama of Botswana loves life on the single lane, and says he would be lost on how to divide his time between a wife and the nation.
  • He says he does not understand what all the hullaballo over his marital status is all about. Marriage ties you down, it takes you away from your people.
  • If you want to be a good, totally dedicated leader, you can’t afford to give room to any distractions

At 59, the man has swiftly gone silent about his quest for ‘Miss Right’, whom he once said must be tall, fine-looking and slender.

Ian Khama, the Botswana president who celebrated his 59th birthday last month, has seemingly given up the search for a partner, or perhaps, Batswana women are just not towering or slim enough for him.

Interestingly, the enigmatic leader deliberately skipped mentioning marriage during his speech at the Botswana Democratic Party’s (BDP) 50th anniversary celebrations last month.

He took a prolonged pause after reading the word ‘marriage’ in his speech. “Hang on,” he said, “who put marriage in my speech, I am not better placed to talk about it.”

But, just why does the man dread marriage? “I hear people who are married say that they enjoy the institution of marriage,” he says.

“They like to have a partner that they can share their life with. And I hear others — who, I may say, are in the majority — express great difficulties and challenges in being married.”

But for him, he says, the problem is that “I don’t like to get into something that I don’t have control over. When I say control, I mean that I can probably influence an outcome”.

Khama, who has been at the helm of the Southern African country since April 2008, seemingly fears if he were to settle down with a woman, the balance of priorities could easily go off course.

Interestingly, his close ally, South African president Jacob Zuma, effortlessly juggles his busy schedule alongside four wives and countless children.

In fact, Khama is the only bachelor head of state in the region, and that situation does not seem like it will change any time soon after his recent remarks that he wants to devote all his time to his work and feels marriage would “intrude” into his life.

The former military commander says not even presidents are spared by the responsibilities and conjugal glitches associated with marriage.

“When I think of the pressures of work here, and the stress and everything that comes with it... if you are having problems at home with all that additional stress, something is going to snap,” says the reticent leader.

Khama is the fourth president of Botswana since the country’s independence from Britain 42 years ago.

Of the four men, he is the only one who has stayed single through this reign as leader of the diamond-rich nation.

But, of interest, is how his father Seretse’s controversial marriage to Briton Ruth Williams was at its most dramatic.

Those in the know say opponents and supporters were at their most vociferous. In England, supporters of the couple calling themselves the Council for the Defence of Seretse Khama were increasing their pressure on the political leadership of the country.

And in Serowe, the Khamas’ rural home, amidst the inter-tribal agendas competing for control of the throne, a team of supporters was strongly agitating for his return, not just to ga-Mmangwato (the land of BaNgwato) but to its throne as well.

Of course Khama’s shunning of matrimony may not necessarily have anything to do with his parents’ experiences.

He actually figures it would be unfair to juggle between family and work ‘burden’, hence his decision to stick to one — his work.

Clearly, he is convinced that the relationship would demand too much of his time.

“I am always asking myself: Would it be fair for me to get married to someone who expects me to devote more time to them than I am able to give them because of the amount of time I want to spend working?”

But then again, on the flipside, his bachelorhood looks to be shelling out dividends.

Khama took over a functioning economy and was not expected to do anything different to the overall economic policy.

He has maintained that and is very popular among the rural folk especially. He is known to have his eye on fighting crime and corruption.

“He is upright generally. He hates dishonesty and he punishes severely,” says a source within the corridors of the Office of the President.

Sydney Mongala, 37, concurs, adding that his president’s successes are “there for everyone to see”. 

“Public servants’ efficiency used to be questionable, but he has really sat on them and the improvements are tremendous,” Mongala says.

“The roads have really improved. A lot of development work has been done in Botswana in the past few years.

“There’s so much improvement and I’m sure anyone who has been to Botswana previously would notice the changes as soon as they enter into the city,” adds the Molepolole native.

Although generally known as introverted, Khama has won plaudits for being accessible, something that seems unmanageable for wedded leaders.

“He’s the only president, perhaps in the whole of Africa, who we can see walking in the streets and we are able to touch his hand. It’s amazing,” says Tshotlego Emelda Modisane of Gaborone.

Apart from that, Khama’s Liquor Act, although frowned at by many, looks to be paying off. Khama passed the controversial piece of legislation straight after his inauguration four years ago.

Montana Gabolekane, 35, of Tonota, northern Botswana, also hails his unattached president for “making his presence felt”.

“Khama has really made his presence to felt as a leader. If you are not doing your job he boots you out. He’s really serious about his work,” he says.

Gabolekane is of the view that the presence of a woman in Khama’s life would possibly soften him. He, however, says it is “a bit strange” that Khama has remained unmarried at his age.

“It’s quite strange, very weird, but at the same time we should respect the man’s way of doing things.”

He echoes how common expectation is that a leader is married. “As Batswana, we believe in leaders who are married.

“It’s much easier when you approach them with a challenge because they will understand what you are going through.”

On the other hand, Gabolekane, who is not married himself, acknowledges that marriage can be a bit demanding.

“If an ordinary man like me has got a wife, it would be difficult to go to football games during the weekend because the wife also needs to spend time with me.

“The family cracks when you don’t give it more time,” says the football enthusiast. Possibly, if Khama was married, his routine walkabouts would be a thing of the past.

“Sometimes during weekends I want to interact with Batswana. That’s when I do the walkabouts. If I were married I would say, let me spend time with the family.

“But because I am single I am able to do more. From the job point of view this benefits Batswana and me,” says Khama.

Khama came close to walking down the aisle 10 years ago when a delegation from his home village of Serowe in central Botswana reportedly travelled to South Africa to meet the Mberes for lobola (dowry) talks.

Khama was then engaged to Dr Nomsa Mbere, who is renowned for her charity work and, ironically, for several years, served as the president of the Botswana Red Cross, which was founded by Khama’s late mother, Lady Ruth Khama, a British native.

The proposed marriage was largely expected to be the wedding of the decade, more so because of Khama’s other position as BaNgwato’s paramount chief.

During the time, Khama used to attend social functions accompanied by Mbere. Everything seemed to be going well until Khama’s mother, Lady Ruth Khama, died at 79 later that year. Then everything came to a virtual standstill.

Speaking about the engagement, Khama recently said: “…we are not engaged anymore.”

Mbere also does not want to comment on the issue, while Khama’s young brother, Tshekedi, who is married, reveals that he is not interested in the marriage commitment and will probably never marry.

Apart from Mbere, Khama has never been linked to any other woman. Instead, he has been given a ‘fag’ tag.

“There has always been the rumour of him being gay, but it’s not proven. That someone does not want to marry does not mean they are gay,” Gabolekane defends Khama.

Khama has previously stayed with his nephews and nieces at the state house but is said to be currently living alone.

The BaNgwato are evidently nonplussed by their paramount chief’s status, although Joel Sepheko, 48, says “it’s his choice”.

“Remember he’s not just the president. He is the BamaNgwato chief and expectations are that he should be married, but marriage is one’s choice and no one can force him,” he says.

University of Botswana (UB) sociologist Learnmore Gatsi also concedes there is always the expectation that a head of state should be married, let alone a chief.

“Of course, according to societal expectations and values, an individual has to be married and when the main stream starts talking of a president not being married it does bring thoughts to be provoked,” Gatsi says.

But, he believes, Khama has done fairly well despite his marital status. “If we look at other presidents around Africa in comparison with Khama, he has done a fairly good job despite him being single.

“If we look at the merits, they are no different from that of a president who is married.” But the social scientist believes the family unit is critical as a support system to any political leader.

He says that being single does not guarantee effectiveness, neither does he feel marriage affects the quality of leadership.

Khama has been largely criticised for the ruling Botswana Democratic Party’s (BDP) split that saw some of its members form the Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD) two years ago.

He has been accused of running the nation “like the army”, especially because of his controversial pieces of legislation that include the Liquor and Traditional Beer acts.

Khama started his military career in 1972 when he joined the military college of Sandhurst in the United Kingdom.

The school, established in 1947, gives preliminary training to military officers and he was then the only Motswana to enrol in the military school.

He returned to Botswana in 1973 and joined the Police Mobile Unit, the precursor to the Botswana Police Service.

However, in 1977, Parliament passed the Botswana Defence Forces Act, formally establishing the force.

About 123 men, among them Khama, were drafted into the newly formed BDF. Khama was made deputy commander.

In 1989, he was elevated to the position of commander. His ascendance in the military was not without controversy, with some critics pointing out that he was favoured as the son of the president.

“(He) brought a different leadership style and new priorities. Under Khama the BDF grew in leaps and bounds, both in personnel and equipment.

“Khama was a strict disciplinarian, bordering on the puritanical. However he had the reputation of being a hands-on leader who cared about his troops, inspected frequently and fought successfully for troop benefits,” wrote Dan Henk, a US security affairs author.

Well, his approach to governance has never changed. Neither has his attitude towards marriage.


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