Friday, March 31, 2023

Builders of Botswana: The Great Press War

“In her new home Ruth faced a storm of problems. The small white colony of Serowe shuns her company. Seretse’s uncle, who might have been a friend, has turned against them, fearing a dynasty of miscegenation. Both the Union of South Africa and Southern Rhodesia have barred her from entering, which restrict them to Serowe and neighbouring small towns…But Ruth has found friends.

The Natives respect her for her forthright character and her understanding of their problems; to them she is the rightful queen” – Margaret Bourke-White (Life magazine 6/3/1950)??We concluded last week’s instalment by noting that the international press arrived in Gammangwato in unprecedented numbers from August 1949, to witness Ruth Khama in her new home. For the first time in a generation the Protectorate was in the global media spotlight. ??Here it may be noted that a degree of imperial press attention had also briefly focused itself on Serowe in 1933, when Tshekedi Khama was banished for his alleged flogging of a white resident only to be restored after a few weeks. On that occasion the kgosi had found a useful ally in the press, a feat his estranged nephew was to emulate.??From the beginning, the colonial regime looked upon the media influx covering Ruth and Seretse’s fate, as both a serious threat and potential opportunity.

Gordon Walker, the Commonwealth Secretary responsible for dealing with the growing controversy, believed that: “The only policy now is to allow anti-Ruth feeling to develop.” ??To achieve such an outcome, Walker and his henchmen were quite prepared to covertly plant negative stories in the press. In this effort they knew that they could rely on a few friendly Fleet Street editors, as well as the racial sentiments of most regionally based reporters.??In addition, Bertram Paver, the editorial director of the Associated Bantu Newspapers, whose publications then included the cross border Setswana newspaper Naledi ya Batswana, as well as larger publications such as the Bantu World, was convinced by Baring to instruct his reporters to toe the administration’s line.??To further manage events the then British Information Officer for South Africa, Nicholas Monsarrat, was dispatched to Gammangwato on what evolved into an extended assignment in media management.

Armed with a generous expense account to entertain journalists, in the end Monsarrat’s local efforts appear to have mostly benefited the cash flow of the Palapye Hotel’s Bar.┬á ??In the months that followed Ruth and Seretse became major international media celebrities, thanks to the accounts of number of journalists, published in scores of publications around the world. Among the reporters who made the pilgrimage to Serowe, three in particular stand out – Margaret Bourke-White, Noel Monks and Julian Redfern.??Besides his sympathetic reports in the London Daily Express, Redfern is remembered for his book – “Ruth and Seretse: A Very Disreputable Transaction” (1955) – which exposed the hypocrisy and deceit of the British colonial establishment.??Arguably the greatest and certainly the most prominent photo-journalist of the twentieth century, Margaret Bourke-White’s positive photo essays of the embattled couple for Life magazine – beginning with “The White Queen, how a London girl is making out as the wife of an African Chief” -brought images and a considerable degree of understanding of events in Serowe to middle class households across the USA and beyond.

With TV still in its infancy, for many at the time Life’s photo-journalism was a primary source of visual information about outside events. ??Having been harassed by paparazzi in both London and on her arrival in Serowe, Ruth initially wanted nothing to do with the press, including the already famous Bourke-White. But the latter, nonetheless, persisted for weeks in seeking an interview. She would later quip that getting the Khama’s to agree to a formal interview had been more difficult than her earlier breakthrough with Joseph Stalin.??Ruth initially responded to Margaret with a note: “I hate to disappoint you but I just don’t want my picture taken. Please understand that this is not personal, but drop in on us any time to sample my coffee.” ??It was later still that she, with Seretse’s concurrence, was finally convinced that getting a story in Life would help their cause.

By now on the way to becoming good friends – an icebreaker had been a gift of two kittens that Seretse named “Pride & Prejudice” – Ruth later explained to Margaret her bitterness against the press in some detail, in the context of the various false claims that by then had already appeared in print about both her and the Bangwato (some of which we now know to have been officially encouraged).??Margaret Bourke-White’s passion for Seretse and Ruth’s cause, as reflected in subsequent 1950-53 Time as well as Life magazine reports, is further reflected in her private papers, which contain an unpublished chapter – “The White Queen”. The manuscript was apparently excised by the publisher from her classic memoir ‘Portrait of Myself’ (published in 1963 by which time she was already suffering from advanced Parkinson’s disease).┬á


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