Monthly Archives: February 2019

The Khamas and South Africa’s shameful part in trying to stop the marriage

Review: Vivien Horler

Your People will be My People – the Ruth Khama Story, by Sue Grant-Marshall (Protea Book House)

ruth khamaThe 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.

 

Military historian does a fine job remembering a forgotten campaign

Reviewer: Archie Henderson

South Africans versus Rommel: The Untold Story of the Desert War in World War II by David Brock Katz (Jonathan Ball)

saffers vs rommelErwin Rommel gets more play in the title than in the book itself. That’s because David Katz’s original publisher, the American group Stackpole, which specialises in military books, believes that Rommel sells, just as Montgomery does, or Patton.

Stackpole might be right and now Jonathan Ball has published a paperback version that is likely to do well on the South African market. Katz’s book lives up to the first part of its title in drama and detail, of which there are plenty of both.

To be flippant for a moment about a serious book, if the title sounds a bit like a sports fixture, Rommel wins two-nil. His Panzer Army destroyed a South African brigade during the battles around Sidi Rezegh in Libya in the northern winter of 1941, then he captured an entire South African division at Tobruk six months later. The two events were among the greatest three disasters suffered by South African soldiers, Delville Wood in World War 1 being the other. Continue reading

Why centuries of indignities meted out to Muslims endanger us all today – and an element of hope

Reviewer: Archie Henderson

The House of Islam: A Global History by Ed Husain (Bloomsbury)

house of islamIslam often gets a bad press. Isis, Al Qaeda, Hamas and other terror groups, murderous dictators such Muammar Gaddafi, Sadam Hussein and Bashar al-Asad are to blame. All have exploited a benign religion for vicious sectarian purposes, but are they any worse than bigots and extremists of Christianity, Hinduism and, of all people, lately the Buddhists of Myanmar?

We live among Muslims, enjoy their food and hospitality, respect their beliefs and think we understand them. Maybe we don’t, and this is where Mohammed (Ed) Husain can help.

Husain is the kind of person we seldom hear about, a liberal Muslim. Once a committed Salafist, he later became a Sufist and brilliantly explains the difference between these two strands of Islam in this book.

Salafism is the equivalent of the religious bigot – the puritanical Muslim and part of an Islamic faction supported by Saudi Arabian proselytisers and funded by the kingdom’s oil riches. Husain, in his interpretation of the Shi’ite-Sunni split in Islam, helps explain just how hypocritical the West – and especially the US – is about Muslims; the murder of Jamal Khashoggi being only the most recent example. It’s all right to bomb one Muslim country while excusing gross human-rights violations in another.

The book helps us understand what is happening in the world’s most recent forgotten war, the one in Yemen, and the conflict between Jews and Palestinians over Israel without falling for both sides’ propaganda.

Husain, who has embraced Sufism, which he estimates to be the faith and culture of 80% of Muslims in a world population of almost two billion, puts the anger of the other 20% down to centuries of indignity suffered by Muslim people, especially those in the Arab world.

Since the demise of European imperialism, however, there is a chance of a renaissance, according to Husein – even an accommodation with Israel. For that to happen, Muslims need to remember what it means to live and coexist in a free world – much as they did in the days of Mohammed 1 400 years ago.

There is a glowing blurb on the cover of the book I read. It’s from Peter Frankopan, author of The Silk Roads, a history of the world from a Persian perspective. “This should be compulsory reading,” says Frankopan and for once it’s a valid endorsement.

A tale of adventure, courage and bitter failure in the polar seas

Review: Vivien Horler

Erebus – the story of a ship, by Michael Palin (Hutchinson)

ErebusThree years ago a 68 870 ton cruise ship, the Crystal Serenity, sailed through the icy waters of the almost mythical Northwest Passage.

For well over a century Europeans had hoped to discover a route through Canada’s Arctic archipelago which would link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and provide a shortcut to access trade with the Far East.

Scores of sailors and explorers, many of them British, died in the efforts to find what was the inpenetrable ice-choked passage.

Now, thanks to global warming, the passage is open to cruise liners carrying more than a thousand passengers. Continue reading