Thursday, March 23, 2023

Builders of Botswana: When Ruth came to Serowe

“They are all against me because they know I’m on the side of the Africans. You know they’ve reduced the pay of the African nurses by 4 pounds but they have tacked that 4 pounds onto the pay of the European Nurses.” ÔÇô Ruth Khama, Life Magazine (6 March 1950)
“I was too happy to be disturbed by these threats, for I knew that with such overwhelming approval from the tribe, Ruth, with her charm and beauty would win them over just as she had me.” ÔÇô Seretse Khama, Ebony magazine (June 1951)
After two and a half months of separation, due to the Phuti’s hasty post marriage departure to confront his uncle, Seretse and Ruth were reunited in London in January 1949.┬á The next few months must have been an anxious time. Although Seretse was tasked with preparing for examinations he was clearly distracted by his ongoing struggle with Tshekedi over his morafe’s ultimate acceptance of his marriage.
The clash of wills between the regent and his heir culminated in the long and decisive kgotla meeting of the 20-26 June 1949, which ended with the assembly overwhelmingly voicing its willingness for Seretse to assume bogosi with Ruth as his Mohumagadi.
Humiliated, Tshekedi closed the meeting by announcing his own intention to leave Gammangwato. As Seretse recalled:
“Yet in the third meeting it was Tshekedi, my uncle, who was not willing to abide by the decision of the tribal members. When I asked that all those who opposed my marriage stand up and be counted, only 43 stood. Then when I asked that a similar vote be taken among those who favoured me and were willing to accept my wife, 5,000 rose to their feet at once, shouting “Pula! Pula! Pula!
“I was overjoyed at the decision, but my uncle was in a terrible fit of anger. “The decision,” he stormed, “has been reached by mob law. In olden times there would have been civil war among us. Now there was civil war without firearms. This child, Seretse, has hurt me. If he persists in bringing his white wife, I shall fight him to the end.”
Tshekedi did continue to fight for a while longer, but his relevance in the drama now faded as other more powerful figures came out of the shadows.
In the days that followed was commonly assumed that, notwithstanding the opposition of the South African Prime Minister Malan and his Southern Rhodesian counterpart Godfrey Huggins, the colonial regime would not stand in the way of Seretse’s installation. In this respect Tshekedi’s petition to Baring was initially dismissed, only to be subsequently embraced as a means of buying time.
In London a proposal to block Seretse’s installation pending some form of enquiry in the context of the petition was escalated all the way to Prime Minister Attlee’s Cabinet, who debated and endorsed the idea on the 21st of July 1949. Their decision was finally communicated to the disbelieving Bangwato by Baring nine days later.
Meanwhile, after some weeks of waiting, Ruth had been given permission by Baring to travel to Bechuanaland anytime after the 23rd of July. She thus arranged to travel from London to Livingstone in the then Northern Rhodesia by via a British Overseas Air Corporation flying boat, arriving on the 19th of August after a four day journey.
Throughout the flight Ruth had travelled under the alias “Mrs. S. Jones” due to what were considered to be security concerns in the face of anticipated racial hostility on the part of whites along the route. For the same reason she did not proceed on the flying boat to its ultimate destination, Johannesburg.
Instead, on the 30th of July she boarded a chartered plane to take her to Francistown, where she was finally reunited with her husband. The couple spent the evening at the township home of Seretse’s elder sister Oratile Ratshosa, before leaving for Palapye the next day.
Some within the Colonial Office had hoped that Ruth would turn against a life in Bechuanaland after her arrival, a calculation that caused them to delay the enquiry.
But, in this they badly miscalculated the reactions not only of Ruth, but also the Bangwato, who warmly embraced her as their Mohumagadi. The pattern was set during the couple’s drive from Francistown to Serowe, where they were greeting and often stopped by cheering crowds lining the road. As Seretse recalled:
“All along the way, as we drove the 200 miles back to Serowe there were crowds cheering us, and it was good to know that the Bamangwatos, my people, had accepted her as my wife as well as me as their chief.”
The weeks that followed were truly remarkable, as members of the international press arrived in Palapye-Serowe in unprecedented numbers to witness the “White Queen” in her new African Kingdom, while waiting to see what would be the couple’s fate.
For the first time in a generation Bechuanaland was in the global spotlight, leaving some members of its sleepy administration at wits end.


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