Sir Seretse and Lady Khama. File photo: SUNDAY TIMES
Sir Seretse and Lady Khama. File photo: SUNDAY TIMES

An extract from, Your People Will Be My People: The Ruth Khama Story

Sue Grant-Marshall

Protea Book House

The implications of the Bechuanaland Protectorate’s Bamangwato tribe’s decision in mid-1949 to accept Seretse Khama as chief, with Ruth Williams as his wife, shook Southern Africa and consequently the British Labour government of Clement Attlee.

The SA nationalist government, which had swept the moderate United Party government headed by Jan Smuts out of power the year before, was enshrining apartheid. Under prime minister DF Malan, SA became the only country on earth brazen enough to entrench apartheid in codified law.

And one of the cornerstones of that monstrous system was the Mixed Marriages Act, which prohibited marriage between black and white people. Ruth and Khama had married in the very year that the nationalists came to power, but it was to be some years before the world would repeat the word, “apartheid — separateness” and know the full horror of it. It broke apart families, and sometimes white people who broke the Immorality Act killed themselves in shame when they were discovered.

In June 1949, the very idea that the chief designate of the most powerful tribe living in a territory the South Africans had long regarded as potentially theirs should marry a white woman and be recognised as chief by the British was totally unacceptable to the nationalists. It flouted  the basis of their existence — the separation of the races.

The Bamangwato had no idea when they yelled “Pula!” and accepted Seretse with his white wife, tossing out the Regent Tshekedi Khama, that they were adding fuel to the fire of a dispute over the territory of Bechuanaland that had continued for nearly 40 years between the Union of SA and Britain.

To understand the sequence of events immediately after the third and decisive kgotla, the history of requests for the incorporation of the three British territories of Bechuanaland, Basutoland and Swaziland into SA has to be understood.

The granting of British protection in 1885 to Bechuanaland at the request of the three protectorates' paramount chiefs did not mean their country was safe for all time. When the constitution of the Union of SA was drawn up in 1909, the possibility of handing over the three territories was contemplated on the assumption that the Union of SA would remain an integral part of the British empire.

The act made it clear that the protectorates could not be subordinated to the union government unless the British king agreed to the transfer of the high commission territories to the union government. A memorandum attached to the act made it clear that the British government undertook to consult native opinion in the territories before any transfer could take place.

But from 1909 SA prime ministers Louis Botha, JBM Hertzog and Smuts regularly requested transfer. When Sir Evelyn Baring arrived in SA in 1945 as British high commissioner to the country and the three protectorates, he learnt from Smuts that SA would ask for the three territories once the war was over.

The inhabitants of the territories had escaped the colour bar regulations introduced in the union in the 1930s, which meant by the end of the war there was a distinct difference between the rights of the black people in Bechuanaland and their counterparts in SA.

British officials had to report regularly on the attitude of the Batswana to incorporation, and there was never any doubt about their feelings on that score. This was the situation when Malan’s National Party came to power, and the British waited for his first demand for transfer of the territories. Baring regarded the question of transfer as his most important work in SA, according to his biographer, Charles Douglas-Home.

The questions of transfer and the economic dependence of Bechuanaland on the Union of SA became a lever in SA protests to Britain over the recognition of Seretse as chief. Only five days after the third kgotla, the SA high commissioner in London, Leif Egeland, called on secretary of state for commonwealth relations Philip Noel-Baker, on the urgent instructions of Malan.

Egeland earnestly requested the British government not to recognise Seretse as chief of his tribe. He believed the repercussions in the union of a white woman becoming the chieftainess in an African tribe would be extremely grave. People of all races in the union would condemn the marriage and would think it a grave infringement of a basic principle.

Ruth’s arrival would break up the Bamangwato’s tribal tradition, Egeland suggested. The resignation of Tshekedi would be a serious loss to Bechuanaland and Africans in general, in view of his vision and statesmanship.

The future of the new white chieftainess would be very sombre. Coming from an English home, she would find it extremely difficult to settle down to the kind of accommodation and living conditions that Seretse could offer her. She would not only be lonely, she would be isolated in every way. No one of any race would visit her or give her any social life of any kind. She would certainly not be able to stand the strain of such an existence.

Egeland told Noel-Baker that he would wager a large sum of money that Ruth would not last six months and that at the end of  the period the situation might be very different. The National Party view was telegrammed to Baring, who was being subjected to a great deal of pressure by Pretoria.

But in the days immediately following the kgotla, there seemed to be no reason why Khama should not be recognised as chief. The report of resident commissioner Anthony Sillery stated that the kgotla had been a fair one; the district commissioner in Serowe urged recognition of Khama, “to allay the suspicions” of the tribe; the resident commissioner recommended recognition; and there was no doubt about the general feeling of satisfaction among Bechuanaland administration officials and the majority of the tribe at the thought of having a pleasant young man in power as opposed to the demanding, aggressive Tshekedi.

Baring asked for Khama and Tshekedi to see him, and Khama left immediately for Pretoria. There he was cordially received by Baring, who said he would welcome some indication of his plans and policy if his chieftainship was confirmed. Baring’s advice to heal tribal rifts was qualified, but there was no doubt in Khama’s mind that it was a matter of weeks before he would be made chief, for why else would the high commissioner bother to give him advice on how to run the tribe?

He left the office walking on air and cabled Ruth in London that it would not be long before she would be able to join him in Serowe.

Khama’s view that he was about to be made chief is confirmed in a letter written by Baring to the commonwealth relations office in which he said his first reaction had been to press for an early confirmation of Khama’s appointment by the secretary of state.

But there were powerful political forces at play that would see the cup of success dashed from Khama’s lips before the month of July was out. Events happened so fast, and telegrams and letters flashed at such a rate between Serowe, Mafeking, Pretoria and London that it is no wonder many people were totally taken by surprise by the British government’s eventual decision.

Tshekedi soon hit back. “ My work goes overboard because of a white woman, almost 10,000km away, who has never seen Africa in her life,” he told the press. His wife’s daily duties entailed listening to the problems of people who trekked hundreds of kilometres to meet their chieftainess. How could Ruth possibly do the same, was the question that Tshekedi posed.

This is an edited extract of Grant-Marshall’s book, which is being launched at Exclusive Books in Hyde Park on October 31 at 6pm.