A new film tells the extraordinary love story of the late Botswanan president, Sir Seretse Khama and his middle-class white English wife Ruth Williams endured despite all the obstacles and outrage. Their romance triggered major political and diplomatic crisis.British stars, David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike are portraying the pair whose relationship became the focus of a crisis between Britain and Botswana’s neighbour South Africa, which was about to introduce apartheid.
Seretse was the 27 year old Oxford-educated student from the British protectorate of what was then Bechuanaland who in 1948, married Ruth – a 24-year-old clerk with a Lloyd’s underwriter. Seretse was the chief in waiting of the Bamangwato tribe.
Seretse was sent to London by his uncle, Tshekedi Khama to study law, after which he was to return home and marry a woman from his tribe. His union with Ruth was fiercely opposed by both his family and Ruth’s father.
Seretse’s uncle joined forces with the British government to demand Seretse to give up his white wife, or quit his tribal lands and leave his homeland.
Ruth, born in Blackheath, South-East London, was the daughter of a former Indian Army captain who later worked in tea trade. She met Seretse at a London Missionary Society dance in 1947, when Ruth’s steer Muriel took her.
It was a whirlwind romance. Seretse didn’t seek the consent from his uncle because he knew it would be denied, but Ruth had to ask her father George, who argued that she should not marry a black man. But she ignored her father. According to Daily Mail, Rosamund Pike said, ‘Ruth’s fear was telling her father, because she knew it was going to be a hurdle.
‘But I don’t think she thought for a million years that they were suddenly going to have the weight of the British government coming down on them, or that a high-up politician would come into her office saying, “If you go ahead with this, you’re going to bring down the British empire in Africa”. It sounds absurd, but that’s what he said.’
Apartheid was about to be enshrined in South Africa, and Britain was reluctant to damage relations with that country. ‘South Africa made strong representations to the British government that if they were seen to condone the marriage of a white woman to an African, there would be a Commonwealth and constitutional crisis,’ said Pike.
While this was going on, Chief Tshekedi, Seretse’s uncle, also insisted that the Colonial Office stop the marriage. The person who was meant to marry Seretse and Ruth was told not to officiate the wedding. The ceremony did not go ahead but the couple decided to marry secretly at a register office.
The following year, Seretse and Ruth returned to his tribe in Bechuanaland, thinking their problems were over. But his uncle was enraged and summoned the tribal elders to a meeting, at which blood relatives of Seretse opposed the marriage.
They said Ruth would not be recognised as a tribal queen. But Seretse and his supporters realised that Tshekedi wanted to be king himself. A second tribal meeting, known as a kgotla, was held and all but nine of the 4,000 present backed the devious uncle.
Meanwhile, furious telegrams were being sent between the UK and South African governments, with Pretoria insisting the marriage breached race laws. The South African prime minister denounced the union as ‘nauseating’.
With his young wife now pregnant, Seretse was invited back to London to meet the Commonwealth Office ministers while Ruth remained in Bechaunaland. It was a trap!
British officials insisted he give up all claims his to the chieftainship. When he refused, he was told he would be banished from his homeland for five years.
There was an outcry and political supporters formed a committee to take up Seretse’s cause. In 1956, leaders of the Bamangwato tribe sent a telegram to the Queen to ask for their chief to be allowed to return home.
When he got him finally, Seretse gave up all his rights to the throne. Instead, he held the country’s first democratic elections and was voted president of what became Botswana. The couple had a daughter and three sons, one of whom, Ian, is now president of Botswana.
Seretse died in his wife’s arms aged 59 in 1980. Ruth died aged 78 in 2002.
The forthcoming film has all the attributes, major actors, important director, explosive and compelling story of a movie that will attract audiences and, just as importantly, Oscar voters.
The film is due to be released later this year.
What a beautiful story, hopefully they get nominated for the next award season. #love conquers all