A United Kingdom - a moving and important film
Romance / drama, 2016, 1-hour 51 minutes
Directed by Amma Asante
Seretse Khama – David Oyelowo
Ruth Williams – Rosamund Pike
Currently (April 2021) available on BBC iPlayer, Amazon, etc
This powerful, and impressive love story concerns Seretse Khama, a black, Oxford educated law student in London in 1947 who falls in love with Ruth Williams, a young white woman who works for Lloyd’s of London. They share a love of jazz and dancing and become deeply committed to each other. However, Seretse decides he wants to marry Ruth and tells her that he is an African prince, heir to the throne of Bechuanaland, a country in Africa the size of France with a population of only 10,000 people.
An incredible statement
It was an incredible statement to make, but this film actually tells a true story. Unsurprisingly, for the mid 20th century, Ruth’s father is absolutely opposed to the idea of his white daughter marrying a black man.
At this time Bechuanaland was a British protectorate where Seretse’s uncle,Tshekedi, was acting as regent until Seretse became able to take over as King.
Seretse sent a message to his uncle telling him of his intentions to marry a white girl. Tshekedi was outraged by the thought of a future king of Bechuanaland marrying a white girl rather than a member of his own tribe. He thought he could stop the marriage and sent a message to the British Missionary Society in London pressing them to intervene to stop the marriage. The story was making headlines in the British press.
Seretse decided to defy his uncle’s wishes and brought the date of his wedding forward in order to to ensure that it went ahead. The wedding was booked to take place at St. George’s Church, Campden Hill, London, but there had been fierce condemnation of the marriage in parliament and headline stories in the British press which caused the vicar to fear that he might be doing the wrong thing. He therefore referred the matter to the Bishop of London for his decision. The bishop decided that the marriage should not take place without the approval of the British government. Seretse and Ruth therefore decided not to wait for a government decision but to have a civil wedding.
This did not calm the the political and media frenzy. In fact their troubles were just beginning.
Seretse and Ruth arrived in Bechuanaland to encounter a great deal hostility to Seretse’s choice of wife. In a powerful scene his sister, Nakedi, confronts Ruth and demands to know how she can possibly imagine that she could be a suitable queen of an African tribe.
Seretse makes his case to heated meetings of the tribal council and his uncle presents opposing views. Initially the tribe is against the marriage.
Meanwhile, in the neighbouring country of South Africa apartheid was being developed and the idea of a mixed-race marriage of rulers in the neighbouring state with the king and queen speaking out for the idea of racial equality was something South Africa could not tolerate.
Britain was commercially dependent to a significant extent on South Africa. For this reason the British government did not want to upset South Africa’s government and decided to do what it could to break up up.the marriage in Bechuanaland.
Seretse was summoned to London by the British government and an enquiry was set up into his ”suitability for the role of King of Bechuanaland.”
What ensues is a shameful story of British Governmental lying and cheating in order to force its will on a relatively weak country. Seretse was prevented from returning to his country, Ruth being in Bechuanaland at this time. Initially his banishment was to last for five years.
The film continues to tell the story of how Ruth and Seretse fight to live together in Bechuanaland – a story of the triumph of character, determination and love over seemingly all-powerful opposition. Eventually Seretse becomes the first elected president or Bechuanaland which is is now renamed Botswana. AND Seretse is knighted.
Happy ever after?
At the end of the film we are left with a feeling that it was a happy-ever-after story. Ruth and Seretse certainly succeeded in living happily together after a long struggle and he succeeded in leading his country until he died of cancer at the age of 59.
Sadly, as time went on, Botswana was exploited by powerful mining companies supported by South Africa and western powers. It is both shameful and tragic that Botswana developed into a cruelly unequal society.
By the beginning of the 21st century Botswana, in spite of being rich and having a remarkably fast growing economy as a result of its mineral wealth, had a desperately inadequate healthcare system and the the largest proportion in the world of its population suffering from HIV AIDS.
A New Internationalist report in 2018 stated, “Unemployment continues to rise, with only 1,000 jobs available in the formal sector for 10,000 graduates each year. It is now common for the words ‘Botswana’, ‘tax haven’, ‘money laundering’ and ‘corruption’ to be said in the same breath. The amassing of wealth by a few has widened the chasm between the haves and those who are barely surviving – Botswana is now among the world’s most unequal countries.
But note: if you read about Botswana in Wikipedia you will read how well administered and prosperous the country is. The Wikipedia article was, I suspect, provided by the government of Botswana or a friend of the administration.
Today Botswana is a country with a population of almost 3 million people.
See the film. It is a great story.
7 April 2021
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