Seretse Khama’s inter-racial love affair with Ruth Williams – an English bank clerk when they met prior to their marriage in 1948 – provoked panic among postwar British colonial officials who schemed to have the couple exiled, documents released to the [British] National Archive two years ago show.
The relationship between Ruth and Seretse made headlines in Britain and Africa and left British colonial officials in the protectorate of Bechuanaland scrabbling for a solution.
Fearing pressure from South Africa, they could not know that when the protectorate became independent as Botswana almost 20 years later, the man causing them such concern would be its first president and be knighted.
The two had met after the Second World War in London, where Seretse was studying law, and had fallen in love through a shared taste for jazz.
When the news broke the British Government faced fierce opposition from the apartheid government in neighbouring South Africa and those in North and South Rhodesia, which had banned inter-racial marriage. The Prime Minister of South Africa, Daniel Malan, pronounced the relationship “nauseating.”
Secret papers released on Friday in Kew show that British officials feared that the Malan Government, dominated by Afrikaners, would use the issue as leverage to push for “immediate transfer” of Bechuanaland to South Africa under proposals that the British had resisted since the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910.
In one diplomatic cable from May 1950 the British High Commissioner in Bechuanaland, A.D. Forsyth Thompson, wrote: “If Seretse with his white wife were recognised as Chief of the Bamangwato that would immediately unite white opinion in the Union against us, even that of many of our friends and we would promptly be placed in a most difficult position over immediate transfer.”
The papers show that Africans in Bechuanaland and Lesotho also opposed the marriage.
In another secret despatch the Bechuanaland High Commissioner quoted one tribal delegation: “They were most strongly opposed to ‘black-white marriages’. ‘What the lion does the jackal will copy. This marriage is a disaster for Africa. The chief’s actions are always copied and we shall find in 25 years that many other Bechuana will have married white wives, and in another 25 years the Bamangwato will be finished, they will be like the Cape Coloureds’.”
British officials reported that they were “surprised at the strength of criticism” from other tribes against the appointment of a “white ruler.”
Other papers record British officials accusing Seretse of doing a “grave disservice” to the British administration and assuring other tribal leaders that he and Ruth would shortly “disappear.”
Seretse won support for his marriage from within the Bamangwato tribe but was nonetheless forced into exile in London with his wife in 1950.
The couple returned to Bechuanaland in 1956 after the Bamangwato tribe sent a cable to the Queen begging for his return.
In 1965 Seretse became the country’s first post-independence President, a position he held until his death in 1980. He was knighted in 1966.
Between 1966 and 1980 Botswana was the world’s fastest growing economy, helped by the discovery of lucrative diamond deposits.
Lady Khama pursued a career in charitable works and lived in Botswana until her death in 2002, where she was commonly known in the Bamangwato tribe as the “Queen Mother”. She did not learn local languages and retained a keen interest in Reader’s Digest and the National Geographic.
Their eldest son, Lieutenant-General Ian Khama, is the fourth president of Botswana. (The Times).