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A UNITED KINGDOM … OF BOTSWANA

It’s something of a controversial fairy story, albeit true and little known these days: Ruth Williams from Eltham in South London attends a London Missionary Society dance in June 1947, meets a Prince from Botswana, falls in love and by September 1948 they are married - amid much controversy. Andrew L. Urban traces the story that has been made into the movie, A United Kingdom.

Ruth Williams can thank her beloved sister Muriel for the introduction to the Prince, during that 1947 summer dance in London. The Prince, Seretse Khama, became the first President of Botswana, she became Lady Khama, the First Lady, from 1966 to 1980. But that came later ….

We can well imagine the uproar in postwar London, when the English rose from Eltham agrees to marry a chap from Botswana. Prince or no Prince, he’s black. Studying law at London’s Inner Temple, Khama may be clever, but he’s still black. The apartheid Government of South Africa and the tribal leaders in (the British Protectorate) Bechuanaland of Khama’s Bamangwato people were aghast. Mixed marriages were not all the rage anywhere. The British Government even tried to stop the marriage; the Bishop of London, William Wand, refused to allow a church ceremony without the Government’s consent, so they were married at Kensington registry office.

It gets worse. In 1950, just two years after their wedding, Khama was invited to London from his Bechuanaland home, where his uncle Tshekedi was regent. He was prevented from returning home and the couple lived in exile in Croydon – the ignominy of being in exile in Croydon can only be known by those who know Croydon. (Sorry Croydon …)

The reason for his exile can be traced directly to his marriage. Having banned interracial marriage under the apartheid system, South Africa could not afford to have an interracial couple ruling just across their northern border in the British Protectorate. South Africa wanted Khama removed from his high ranking position.

Britain’s Labour government, then heavily in debt from World War II, could not afford to lose cheap South African gold and uranium supplies. There was also a fear that South Africa might take more direct action against Bechuanaland, through economic sanctions or a military incursion. The British launched a parliamentary enquiry into Khama’s fitness for the chieftainship. Though the investigation reported that he was in fact eminently fit to rule Bechuanaland, "but for his unfortunate marriage", the government ordered the report suppressed (it would remain so for thirty years). Still, he was exiled …

But his people were not to be denied. They sent a telegram to the Queen on his behalf, and the couple returned in 1956. Khama renounced his tribal throne and became a cattle farmer in Serowe, central Botswana, spending the next decade as a farmer, and launching the Bechuanaland Democratic Party (1962), going on to win the 1966 general election. He managed to gain his country’s independence the following year and became its first President. And was re-elected four times, his First Lady by his side (and active in support).

The screenplay of A United Kingdom is by Guy Hibbert, the fine writer whose credits include Eye in the Sky (2015) and Five Minutes of Heaven (2009), and the film is directed by Amma Asante, best known for her highly acclaimed drama, Belle. The splendid Rosamund Pike plays Ruth and the charismatic David Oyelowo plays Khama.

* Acknowledgement to Wikipedia for information used in this article.

Published October 27, 2016

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