Sunday, June 16, 2024

Builders of Botswana: USA to USA (ZK continued)

This week, we return to Professor Z.K. Matthews and his relationship with Seretse Khama. As previously noted, following his return to Lovedale, Seretse became a frequent visitor at the Matthews’ home “Phuting”. During this period he also first came into contact with many of Z.K.’s other best and brightest, including Oliver Tambo and his lifelong friend, Charles Njonjo, of Kenya.

According to oral tradition Seretse’s longest stay at Phuting lasted several weeks, when Frieda Matthews acted as nursemaid in treating his tuberculosis.

After Seretse had completed his secondary education, Z.K., along with Tshekedi Khama, favoured of the idea of him pursuing his further studies in law at the colonial metropol – Britain. But the outbreak of the Second World War delayed the move for five years.

In the interim, Z.K. convinced both Seretse and his guardian uncle that it would be better for him to become part of the Fort Hare fraternity than face racial ostracism at the University of Cape Town, which then accepted a token number of black students. Seretse embraced Fort Hare to the point of distraction, involvement in campus politics led to a brief suspension resulting in his repeating a year.

After Seretse had stumbled on his 1942 exams, Z.K. became more personally engaged as his tutor, with weekend lessons and holiday reading lists. The Professor further insisted that the crown prince use his visits to Serowe to gain experience in tribal administration alongside his uncle. Besides preparing him for bogosi, Z.K. reckoned that Seretse would be able to apply the practical insights he gained at the kgotla toward his academic studies of customary law and “native administration.”

With such encouragement, Seretse made rapid academic progress. In 1944 he became just the fourth son of Gammangwato known to have gained a University degree; following in the footsteps of K.T. Motsete and Monametse Chiepe, as well as Z.K.

Tshekedi and his cousin Bathoen II took vicarious pleasure in Seretse’s success. Both had had their own degree studies prematurely ended by the demand that they return home to assume the burdens of bogosi. In this respect they were sympathetic to Seretse’s desire for additional studies in face of inevitable pressure that he instead assume his seat at Kgosing.

With the doors to the UK still closed Z.K. next suggested that Seretse follow in his own footsteps by touring other African colonies to get a comparative perspective of indigenous law and society, as well as differences in colonial administration.

But, when this possibility was effectively blocked by the authorities, Z.K. instead facilitated Seretse’s enrolment in January 1945 for a Bachelor of Laws Degree at Witwatersrand. There he was joined and soon befriended another new student, Joshua Nkomo, while also mixing with the trio of Mandela, Sisulu and Tambo, among other Fort Hare graduates who had gone on to Wits for their legal studies.

Although formally non-racial, at the time Wits, like UCT, enrolled relatively few black students. It is therefore not surprising that those that did attend found one another.

Seretse’s stay at Wits was, however, cut short by the end of the war, which finally opened the door to his and his mentor’s long-term ambition that he study in Britain. The Bechuanaland Administration was staunchly opposed to the prospect, but ultimately there was little they could do once Seretse was admitted to Balliol College, Oxford, where he took up studies in October 1945.

Although they maintained contact, circumstance kept Z.K. and Seretse apart for the next two decades. Against their own quiet expectations, both the Professor and student soon found themselves in the international spotlight as a result of their response to the racism around them.

By 1949 the “marriage of inconvenience” had exploded on the international stage, transforming Seretse and Ruth into global icons of non-racialism, more especially across Africa as well as the UK and USA.

In the same year Z.K. became the President of the Cape Congress, the largest of the then four provincial branches of the A.N.C. resulting in him also becoming a member of the movement’s National Executive.

Z.K.’s increasingly high profile involvement with the A.N.C. would also come at a personal price.

During the 1952-53 academic year the Professor was on sabbatical at the Union Theological Seminary in New York. If he had expected a break from struggle politics it was not to be. An invitation to address the United Nations on “the race conflict in South Africa resulting from the apartheid policy of the Government of the Union of South Africa” set off a firestorm in Pretoria as well as New York, with no less the Prime Minister Malan sending personally threatening cables.

Inevitably, the campaign to block Z.K. at the U.N. generated more interest than probably anything he might have said. On college campuses and other fora, as well as in the press, his voice was being heard among Americans, who at the time were occupied with their own campaign for racial equality.

Frieda Matthews would later recall that it was her husband’s inability to physically accept the growing number of invitations that came his way that resulted in her own recruitment as a sought after public speaker. To a growing number of people the struggles in the two USAs (i.e. Union of South Africa) for the first time appeared to be connected.

In the end, Z.K. had to cut his sabbatical short. Harassment on arrival at Johannesburg airport was a prelude to the infamous Treason Trial.


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