Lady Khama

Lady Khama (Ruth Williams)

Born: 9 December, 1923, in Blackheath, London Died: 22 May, 2002, in Gaborone, Botswana, aged 78

RUTH Williams was a humble City of London clerk who eventually became the First Lady and honoured Mother of the Nation in a black African state.

Her marriage in 1948 to Seretse Khama, heir to the chieftainship of the Bamangwato tribe in the British protectorate of Bechuanaland, sandwiched between the white minority-ruled states of South Africa and Southern Rhodesia, caused such a storm in postwar Britain that it almost brought down Clement Attlee’s Labour government.

The sight of a black man with a white woman was then a rarity in Britain. There were many ugly incidents in which Ruth was abused on the streets of London and Oxford as a cheap slut by total strangers.

After Seretse, then a law student at Oxford University and the Inner Temple in London, proposed and Ruth accepted, the couple came under attack from every direction as people tried to stop their marriage. Atlee’s government tried to destroy it, cravenly anxious to prevent South Africa, with its newly elected pro-apartheid National Party government, from leaving the Commonwealth.

The Anglican Archbishop of London, Dr William Wand, refused Seretse and Ruth, both Christians, a church wedding. The London Mission Society, which had a powerful presence in Bechuanaland, threatened to send lobbyists to any church wedding in an effort to prevent it.

Chief Tshekedi Khama, Seretse’s uncle, guardian and regent of the Bamangwato, Bechuanaland’s biggest clan, warned his nephew he would ruin himself by marrying a white woman.

Marriage, said Tshekedi, meant many things to the Bamangwato and other Bechuana clans that it did not to Europeans. Marriage to the Bechuana was above all an alliance of families, not an act of individuals. Tshekedi told Seretse his love for Ruth was a mere passing fancy. "I want you to beget a black chief for me, not a white one," he told Seretse, who became heir to the Bamangwato chieftainship after his grandfather and father died in quick succession.

Even Trevor Huddleston, a Community of the Resurrection Anglican priest based in Johannesburg, later a widely acclaimed opponent of apartheid who was expelled from South Africa, advised Sir Evelyn Baring, the British High Commissioner to South African and Bechuanaland, to act to prevent the black-white union.

However, the most deadly opposition came from DF Malan, the new South African National Party prime minister.

Malan was horrified by the prospect of a mixed marriage on his borders, not least because Britain’s administrative capital for Bechuanaland was based inside South African at Mafeking.

Malan warned Sir Evelyn Baring that South Africa would consider annexing Bechuanaland if the white-black union was allowed to proceed. Malan also threatened to withhold uranium, for Britain’s atomic bomb programme, as well as gold, which London marketed and was necessary to sustain the post-war pound in debt-laden Britain.

Attlee’s government succumbed to South African blackmail, although it was only 30 years later that secret papers showed that Attlee had entered a devil’s pact with Malan and that Philip Noel-Baker, Labour’s Secretary of State, had lied to the House of Commons by denying that Britain was bowing to South African racism. British intelligence even reported that Ruth was part of a communist plot designed to destabilise British colonial rule.

Ruth Williams was born at Blackheath, the daughter of a former captain in the Indian Army who worked in the tea trade. She was in the family home when it was bombed during the Blitz. She left Eltham Grammar School to join the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, driving ambulances at Spitfire bases. She also served at an emergency aircraft landing station near Beachy Head.

After the war, she worked as a clerk at Lloyd’s in the City of London. In her spare time she rode, ice-skated and went ballroom dancing, meeting her future husband, who was living in a student hostel near Marble Arch, through a mutual interest in jazz.

The couple eventually became man and wife at a ceremony in September 1948 at Kensington Register Office. Ruth’s father reacted by throwing her out of the family home. Her Lloyd’s boss offered her either a transfer to New York or the sack: Ruth immediately resigned and left at the end of that week. The press officer of the British High Commission in Pretoria, Nicholas Montserrat, later the author of the best-selling novels The Cruel Sea and The Tribe that Lost its Head, played a powerful role in trying to prevent the marriage.

Ruth and Seretse immediately went to Bechuanaland, but were ordered to leave in 1950 by Sir Evelyn Baring and the Attlee government. The Labour administration ordered them to remain in exile in Britain for a minimum period of five years, extended to "indefinitely" by the subsequent Conservative government. They settled in Croydon while Seretse continued his legal studies.

Meanwhile, the Bamangwato elders began to accept Ruth - slowly, resentfully but, when the moment came, irreversibly. Then, in 1956, the couple heard they were to be allowed back to Bechuanaland, after the Bamangwato elders had cabled the Queen: "The Bamangwato are sad. Over our land there is a great shadow blotting out the sun. Please put an end to our troubles. Send us our real chief - the man born our chief - Seretse." However, the British forced him to renounce his chieftainship before they would let him go.

Seretse rushed to London Airport and took a plane for Africa before the government could change its mind - leaving Ruth to sell their home and car before joining him several weeks later. They settled on Seretse’s cattle farm in Serowe, where he formed the Botswana Democratic Party. He became the first prime minister of Bechuanaland under British rule in 1965 and then the first president of the independent republic of Botswana in 1966. The same British authorities who had tried to destroy his marriage then knighted him, and Ruth became Lady Khama.

"The romance of Seretse and Ruth was one of the great love stories of the world," said their friend, Julius Nyerere, the late president of Tanzania.

Sir Seretse died at the age of 59 in 1980 of diabetes. Ruth remained in Botswana where she was known as "the Queen Mother" and also as Mohumagadi Mma Kgosi (Mother of the Chief) after her eldest son assumed the chieftainship vacated by his father. She spent the last 22 years of her life as president of the Botwsana Red Cross and working for numerous other charities and AIDS charities with the highest rate of HIV-infection per head of population in the world.

She is survived by her eldest son, Botswana’s current vice-president, Lieutenant- General Ian Khama, twin sons Tony and Tshekedi, and a daughter, Jacqueline.