“But, whatever the comments, and however heated their political controversy, I said then and I say now, I was tricked into coming back to England. They invited me back then banished me from my home. I thought those things were only supposed to happen in Russia.” – Seretse Khama in Ebony Magazine, 1950.
Few press conferences are remembered past a single news cycle; much less enter the history books. Seretse Khama’s 7th of March 1950 engagement stands as a notable exception.
The then Labour Government had actually expected Seretse to remain silent and the press disinterested as it set its own timeframe for announcing its course of action. In this they were not only caught off guard but soon found themselves in the position dreaded any Government of being driven by a backlash of events rather than driving their own agenda.
As the Secretary of Commonwealth Relations, Patrick Gordon-Walker, candidly confessed in his diary: “He (Seretse) thus got 40 hours start on me and it took me several weeks to catch up.”
The day after the conference Walker, on behalf of Government, thus found it necessary to deliver a statement on Seretse’s exile to Parliament. As with the press, Government was taken aback by the resulting response from the house.
Going into the session Cabinet was most concerned about the potential of a backbench revolt among progressive Labour MPs who were appalled at their own government’s apparent capitulation to the racialists. As it was a number of their members did express criticism.
The few Liberal Party members were united in their criticism, their leader Clement Davies ridiculed Labour as – “One dislikes interference of this kind between man and wife.” The Liberal Party as well as the then small Scottish Nationalist Party would thereafter fully embrace Seretse’s cause. The SNP went so far as to make the Kgosi an honorary Vice President.
Ironically, Attlee’s Cabinet had anticipated little trouble from the main opposition Conservative Party, which was then led by the former Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill. An unapologetic imperialist, Churchill could generally be counted on to support firm measures in the interest of the Empire. But, the elder statesman unexpectedly joined in the chorus of condemnation.
Churchill had, in fact, been prepared to give the Government of the day the benefit of the doubt with regard to withholding its recognition of Seretse. But, he nonetheless insisted that the Secretary of Commonwealth Relations should first satisfy the House that the allegations that Seretse had been lured to Britain and separated from his wife and tribe under false pretence were not true.
Gordon-Walker was at pains in trying to deny Seretse’s statement of the day before that he and his people had been tricked. But, in the end Churchill was not convinced. It was in this context that he famously concluded his contribution with the observation that Government’s treatment of Seretse was “a very disreputable transaction.”
All in all it was a bad afternoon for Government. As the Phuti later recalled with amusement: “Newspapers and magazines made much sport of the matter, and someone wrote a little poem that went: “A gadfly more gadsome than the African tsetse, is what Attlee considers Bamangwato Seretse.”
But, criticism in Parliament was not the only outcome of the press conference. The fact that Ruth and leading Bangwato were following the events in London via radio put local officials at a disadvantage.
The colonial administration has been preparing for a kgotla meeting to be held on the 13th of March 1950, at which the High Commissioner, Sir Evelyn Baring, would inform the Bangwato of their Kgosi’s exile. But the initiative was now lost. On the scheduled morning scheduled no Bangwato were prepared to greet, much less listen the High Commissioner.
Baring has been warned the evening before of the planned boycott by his officials on the ground, but had been dismissive of their concerns. The following morning he found the kgotla empty except for the press, who had come in large numbers, and a few local makgoa.
As Baring himself later admitted: “The white uniform, white helmet, medals and sword which I had donned for the great occasion seemed ridiculous.”
To try to salvage the situation 24 headmen were summoned to appear, but none obeyed. One (probably Peto Sekgoma) was quoted by a London Times as stating; “Only if we are handcuffed and carried will we go to the kgotla.”
Baring then held his own press conference, which did not help matters. As recorded by one official: “It was not a happy experience. The press were in a destructive mood, for they all sided with Seretse, and questioned Baring with cheerful contempt verging on open hostility.”
Most of the subsequent reports in the British, Imperial and America press were all caustic. In the pages of Life, which devoted a whole photo essay to the event entitled “Nobody Came to the Meeting”, Baring’s humiliation was characterised by Bourke-White as “one of the biggest flops in Britain’s recent colonial history.”