This film is based on the story of Seretse Khama, king of the Bamangwato people in what was the British protectorate of Bechuanaland and later the first president of independent Botswana, and his wife Ruth Williams, a white lower-middle-class Englishwoman whom he met whilst studying in London. Their marriage in 1948 was opposed by the government of South Africa, which was bringing in the apartheid system, by the elders of the Bamangwato people – including Seretse’s uncle, who’d been acting as regent – and by the British government which was frightened of upsetting the South African regime for financial reasons. It was also opposed, for racialist rather than political reasons, by Ruth’s parents and by many of Seretse’s relatives and others amongst the Bamangwato.
Whilst Seretse was confirmed as king by his people, amongst whom Ruth became popular, the couple continued to face opposition, and Seretse was eventually tricked into going to London and refused permission by the British government to return. A report which said that there was no reason for this other than the fact that he’d married a white woman was suppressed. There was widespread anger in both Britain and Bechuanaland, but unfortunately it had little political effect – with some interesting parallels for today in terms of smug, arrogant elites thinking that they’ve got the right to dictate to everyone else. Having said which, the smuggest and most arrogant people in the film, the diplomats, are actually fictitious.
The British government at the time was Clement Attlee’s post-war Labour government, the people who set up the NHS, the supposed heroes of the people … but their main concern in all this was keeping South Africa on side. Meanwhile, Winston Churchill, for reasons which weren’t made at all clear in the film, promised to allow Seretse to return if the Tories won the election, but then went back on his word and even extended the short-term exile to permanent exile. Tony Benn spoke up for Seretse and Ruth. It’s interesting to look back on a lot of what he said.
Ruth eventually joined Seretse in exile, but they were later allowed to return to Bechualand on condition that Seretse renounce his throne. Unfortunately, the film rushed to its end at this point, so we didn’t get to see how he led Bechuanaland/Botswana to independence and transformed it from one of the poorest countries in the world to a thriving and peaceful one – not without its problems, but a stable democracy with higher living standards than any of its neighbours – of which his and Ruth’s eldest son is now president. Sadly he died at the age of only 59. Ruth, who outlived him by 22 years, devoted her life to humanitarian work.
It’s not the greatest of films. The story’s really too long to fit into a film of average length. People completely change their minds without any convincing explanation being given of how they came to do so. Ruth is shown as having had no qualms at all about going to live in a completely different culture, where she knew she was going to be met with hostility, which seems unlikely. It’s all a bit simplistic and Disneyfied. And it ends too quickly. But it’s a fascinating story – about a couple who defied personal and political opposition to be together, about a great leader of a nation, and about the shoddy behaviour of politicians of both main parties in the UK.
In my (long-ago!!) salad days, Margaret Thatcher insisting on promoting ties between Britain and the apartheid government of South Africa. Most British people were opposed to it. I can remember solemnly refusing to eat South African apples – not that that was very likely to bring an end to apartheid, but it was something that people did to try to make some sort of point. Ask anyone my age to name a political figure of their own lifetime who’s inspired them, and they’ll probably say Nelson Mandela. It’s not hard to see why Attlee’s government, struggling in the post-war austerity era, was so afraid of upsetting South Africa and losing access to its gold reserves, and its uranium reserves as the Cold War got into full swing – but governments are supposed to carry out the will of the people, and there was widespread support in Britain for the Khamas. As for suppressing reports, and as for Winston Churchill’s volte-face …
But this wasn’t about Britain – it was about Botswana. I’d like to know how this film’s been received there. And the film gets a lot of messages across without ever being smug or preachy itself, something which takes some doing. That is very impressive. I don’t think it’ll be winning any awards, but it’s well worth seeing.