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Nov 20, 2009, 12:23 PM

Susan William, Penguin 2007
Black/White Marriage That Shook The World

In 1949, the Heir to the throne of the Botswana kingdom Seretse Khama, married an ordinary White girl, Ruth, and plunged his tiny and dry Kingdom, the Whole of Southern Africa and British politics into a huge controversy. The White racist establishment in the UK, Apartheid South Africa, sections of the Botsawna, then called Bechuanaland, were highly unprepared for such inter racial marriage.

Seretse Khama, who later won Botswana independence and became its first President from 1966 to 1980, when he died from cancer, was born a prince and heir apparent to the kingdom of the great Khama, who single-handedly brought the tiny desert peoples of the huge Kalahari territory into a unified nation. Seretse got the best education from Fort Hare in South Africa and then onto Oxford to study Law. It was at this very British of citadels of learning that he met Ruth, and they fell in love and later married.

The marriage was condemned by the British colonialists of Bechuanaland, Apartheid South Africa, the authorities in other colonies such as Rhodesia, the British government and a section of  Seretse's own people, and for different reasons. For example, Apartheid South Africa believed that the marriage would send a wrong signal of racial harmony and marriages to Black and liberal South Africans, who were then barred from such unions of the Immorality Act. The House of Commons debated the marriage 'between a Bechuanaland prince and a London typist' (page 155) for two days; while Seretse' uncle and Regent, Tsikeidi, took his supporters into exile into the far flung reaches of the Kalahari to protest the marriage.

When the hardliners in the British and Apartheid South Africa won the day, Seretse was forced into exile with her White wife and 11 weeks old baby. He was forced away from his land and people for 6 years only returning in 1956, to lead the nationalist struggle for his people.

The book is a wonderful history of the stupid racial divides that divided peoples even in the middle of the last century. Whilst during the colonial period White male colonial officials developed sexual relations with African women, colonial Britain forbade Africans marrying White women. For example, in his book Gambian Women: an Introductory History, historian Hassoum Ceesay cited one British Commissioner in Maccarthy Island Division of the Gambia who kept a harem of local women, some of whom became powerful power brokers and ended up putting the British colonial servant in deep embarrassment.

A strong side of this story is that it has a good ending. The couple persisted in their love, made five children, one of whom is the current president of Botswana, thanks to good friends who stood by them in their travails. By the time Sir Seretse Khama died in 1980, Botswana was a respected democracy and a viable nation of good people. Lady Ruth died in 2002 after championing many worthwhile projects in Botswana and Southern Africa.

Today, inter racial marriages are common. We see them happen daily. When we read this book, we will see that just a few decades ago, they were the exception, an oddity that sent shock waves down the spines of racist rats, and could result to exile, banishment and death.

Available at Timbooktoo.4494345