Review: Vivien Horler
Your People will be My People – the Ruth Khama Story, by Sue Grant-Marshall (Protea Book House)
The story of the marriage of Seretse Khama, a Bechuana chief in waiting, and Lloyds of London clerk Ruth Williams, has been told many times, most recently in the film A United Kingdom which was released in South Africa in 2016.
Not only was Ruth’s father vehemently opposed to the wedding, which took place in 1948 in a London very different from the multicultural city of today, so were Khama’s uncle Tshekedi, regent of the powerful Bamangwato tribe, and the British government.
But one of the major themes of this compelling biography of Lady Khama, as she eventually became, was the wily behind-the-scenes involvement of the South African government in the entire affair. And it doesn’t emerge with honour.
In the late 1800s Bechuanaland, Basutholand and Swaziland, as they were then known, feared amalgamation into what became the Union of South Africa, and sent representatives to London to ask Queen Victoria to protect them from this fate. She agreed, and as a result they became known as British Protectorates.
But as late as the 1950s South Africa was still hoping to absorb the protectorates. And naturally the last thing DF Malan’s government wanted was to deal with a territory where the chief of the most powerful tribal grouping was married to a white woman.
South Africa was helped in its campaign by Sir Evelyn Baring, who was not only Britain’s high commissioner to South Africa, but also represented Britain in the protectorates. Baring played a major role in persuading the British government to do everything possible to prevent the marriage, including telling the vicar on the morning of the intended marriage that he was not free to conduct the ceremony.
The couple were eventually married in a registry office a couple of days later, leading to consternation in Britain, Bechuanaland and South Africa. The Bamangwato people eventually accepted the marriage, but South Africa did everything possible to lobby Britain to prevent the Khamas returning to the territory, and at one point the British government banned them from the protectorate for life. Later they were allowed to return, on condition that Khama renounced his claim to the chieftainship for himself and his heirs.
Taking their lead from the British government view of the marriage, many British officials working in Bechuanaland shunned the Khamas socially. This was not a major hardship for Seretse, but was tough on Ruth who had exchanged a busy life in London for a large dusty village which had none of the amenities she was used to and to whose people she was unable to speak because of the language barrier.
Behind South Africa’s attitude, the British government was told, was the fact “the very existence of white settlement in these territories depended, in view of the numerical inferiority and defencelessness of the white population, upon the principle that the native mind regarded the white woman as inviolable”.
The Transvaler wrote in a leading article that the British government “must know that there is no room or role for a native with a white wife and coloured child in the territories surrounding the Union”.
Seretse questioned whether the British government “was prepared to sacrifice the friendship of 60 million Africans for the doubtful friendship of Union Prime Minister Dr Malan”, but it was clear that in fact the British government was. This was partly due to the fact Britain very much did not want South Africa, her staunch ally in the recent World War II, to leave the Commonwealth, and partly to the strong personal relationship between Winston Churchill and Jan Smuts.
It was a shameful episode for all concerned – except the couple at the centre of the storm who behaved throughout with courage and grace. And as we know, the story eventually had a happy ending, with Seretse becoming the first president of an independent Botswana, and Ruth the country’s beloved first lady
Sue Grant-Marshall, a former reporter with the Cape Argus, grew up partly in Bechuanaland where her father, Peter Cardross, was a district commissioner. He worked in the Khama’s home village of Serowe, among other places, and became friends with the Khamas.
This gave Grant-Marshall the access to Ruth for the interviews on which much of this book is based. It was finished around 1984, and then languished for want of a publisher. Some felt the story was too romantic, others too political, and one London publisher told her no one was interested anyway.
But now Protea Books has published it and it is well worth reading, not only for the romance and the politics, but also for a glimpse into the history of the time.
Grant-Marshall says of Seretse: “I thought he was incredible, with a wonderful sense of humour, no bitterness and a gorgeous personality.
“But I was much closer to Ruth, especially after Seretse died. She became like a second mother to me. She had a sharp wit, was incredibly intelligent, and as a young woman was beautiful. And when I think of her, the word that comes to mind is courage.”
Sadly, Ruth did not lived to see the book’s publication as she died in 2002. But Grant-Marshall is “over the moon” that her work has finally been recognised, and feels that she has been true to the passion that both she and Ruth put into it.
- A version of this review appeared in Weekend Argus on Sunday on February 17, 2019.