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Susan Williams

Susan Williams is a historian at the University of London. She has published widely on history and literature, her previous books include Ladies of Influence (Allen Lane 2000). Her latest book is Colour Bar (Penguin 2006).

A piece by Susan Williams, author of Colour Bar: The triumph of Seretse Khama and his nation...

Seretse Khama was the founding President of Botswana, a vast stretch of dry and sun-baked land in southern Africa.  Nelson Mandela fell in love with Botswana at first sight:  it was a wilder Africa than the one he knew in South Africa, he said, and he marvelled at the sight of a lioness lazily crossing the road.

Until recently, Botswana has been little known outside Africa.  But in the last few years, it has become familiar territory to millions of people all over the world, thanks to the runaway success of Alexander McCall Smith’s novels about the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency, in the capital city of Gaborone.  Their heroine is Precious Ramotswe, a ‘traditionally-built’ woman detective who solves mysteries through common sense and a keen observation of human life.  She is greatly loved by her readers – sincere, well-meaning, and thoughtful of others.  ‘When I created Mma Ramotswe,’ explains McCall Smith, ‘I intended to conjure up a person who was quite credible.  Although there may be no one person behind her, she is certainly a mixture of people whom I have met in Botswana – and elsewhere in that part of Africa.’

On the wall of Mma Ramotswe’s office, in a position of honour, is a picture of Sir Seretse Khama.  She holds him in the highest respect, as the man who established the moral tone of Botswana.  This esteem is based on historical fact:  for throughout Sir Seretse’s life and ever since, he has been revered in southern Africa.  ‘The legacy of Sir Seretse Khama,’ observed Mandela in 2000, 20 years after his death, ‘lives on in his country, that continues to be a shining beacon of light and inspiration.’

But what are the roots of this legacy?  Why is Sir Seretse Khama so beloved?  The answer to this question can be found in Colour Bar – the story of his unswerving, patient refusal to accept racism and injustice.

Seretse Khama was born when Botswana was a poverty-stricken British colony, then called Bechuanaland.  He was the heir to the kingship of the Bangwato people and in 1945 he went to Britain to study law.  There he fell in love with an Englishwoman, Ruth Williams, and within a few years they married.  This was the start of an enduring, happy marriage, which was welcomed in Bechuanaland.  But it triggered a brutal reaction by the ruling British Government, which banished Seretse and Ruth from Africa.  In 1950 they were forced to leave for Britain, where they lived in exile for six long years.

The reason for this hostility to their marriage was simply the difference in the colour of their skin:  Seretse was black and Ruth was white.  The British were under heavy pressure from apartheid South Africa and Southern Rhodesia, which did not like the idea of a prominent mixed marriage on the other side of their borders.  But in any case, the marriage met with little approval in the corridors of power in London.

This is a story from which the British government emerges very badly – it lied to the House of Commons, to the people of Botswana, and to the British public.  But it is a story from which Seretse and Ruth, and their nation, emerge with honour.  ‘We are a peace-loving people,’ Seretse Khama told a campaign meeting in Britain.  ‘Don’t let your government teach us racial prejudice.  We don’t have it.  We don’t want it.’  The people of Botswana never stopped asking for the return of Seretse and Ruth, arguing that ‘a woman of one’s choice refers equally to all colours, whether white, black, green or yellow.’

Finally, in 1956, Seretse and Ruth were allowed to return home.  Ten years later, when Botswana became independent, Seretse was unanimously elected as President.  At that time, it was listed by the UN as one of the world’s ten poorest nations.  But in the first 25 years of self-rule, with Seretse at the helm, it had the fastest economic growth in the world.  It is now a successful, peaceful, middle-income country, which enjoys regular elections and a democratic, multiparty, non-racial government.  Of course, Botswana is not perfect and one of its most serious problems is HIV/AIDS, but it has taken a lead in Africa’s efforts to tackle this scourge.  Botswana is a nation that is simply too successful to fit the pessimistic model of postcolonial Africa.

Perhaps it is also too successful – in terms of its attitudes to life – to fit the model of many Western countries.  It is a nation with a high degree of public respect, where courtesies between individuals are taken very seriously and where cynicism and greed are treated with mistrust.  It is not so much that traditions have survived intact:  it is rather the case that the people of Botswana have adapted to the modern world without losing their sense of moral priorities.  ‘It is no exaggeration,’ wrote the novelist Bessie Head, a  refugee from apartheid South Africa who made Botswana her adoptive home in the 1960s, ‘to say that in Botswana I learnt tolerance, love [and] brotherhood because that is what is in the air here.’

These qualities were exemplified – and demonstrated to the world – by Seretse and Ruth Khama.  Seretse could have been soured by his years of persecution by the British government, but he was not.  ‘I, myself,’ he said, ‘have never been very bitter at all, although at a certain stage I lived in exile, away from my country.’  Bitterness, he went on, does not pay.  Certain things have happened to all of us in the past and it is for us to forget those and to look to the future.  It is not for our own benefit, but it is for the benefit of our children and children’s children that we ourselves should put this world right.

Such gentle forgiveness, like that of Nelson Mandela, contrasts starkly with the spirit of revenge and anger which has led to war and distrust in the West in recent years.  This may explain a little the popularity of McCall Smith’s books – the fact that readers are disenchanted with Western values and take pleasure in a world where kindness and civility are seen to count.

Colour Bar is a book that offers the same strong moral sense.  It offers, too, just like the adventures of Precious Ramotswe, a world in which truth and virtue really do win out against lies and deceit.  All the mysteries are solved and, by the end, good triumphs over bad.  But there is one important difference:  it is not fiction, but the historical fact behind the fiction.  For this tale of Botswana – about the courage and decency of Seretse and Ruth Khama – is a true story. 

Controversy still surrounds the abdication of Edward VIII. Was he a weak misguided playboy, or was he a King whose love for Wallis Simpson provided the perfect excuse to manoeuvre him off the throne? Susan Williams reveals there was huge popular support for King Edward and that many ordinary people were happy for him to marry Wallis. Here she talks about her experience of writing The People's King, using new evidence including thousands of letters sent to Edward by his subjects.

Writing this book has been an extraordinary experience: full of new and unexpected discoveries. I have frequently been kept awake at night, trying to make sense of newly unearthed documents – trying to work out what happened in those astonishing days of December 1936, when Britain and its Empire were gripped by the crisis of King Edward’s love for Wallis Simpson. Sometimes, especially when studying the government documents relating to the Abdication, which were released at the National Archives in January this year, I could barely believe what I was reading.

Perhaps because this is such a human story, there have been moments during my research when I have been moved almost to tears. I remember sitting at a desk in the Round Tower in Windsor Castle, which holds the Royal Archives, and coming across a letter from an ex-serviceman to Edward that contained a packet with a four-leaf clover. The veteran told Edward, who had just abdicated, that he had been sent a pair of clovers while he was serving at Gallipoli in 1915. Although the Allies had suffered a terrible and brutal defeat, he had survived – thanks, he believed, to the clovers. He had carried them with him ever since, and now he hoped the King would accept one of the pair, ‘for luck’ in his future life with Wallis.

The book challenges the conventional way of looking at the story. But I feel privileged that I’ve had the chance to set the record straight. ‘Some day – some day – the world will know the whole truth,’ Wallis told a well-known journalist in 1940. She dearly hoped, she said, that when the world knew the truth, it would understand and love Edward ‘for his great courage, as I do . . . We have had such happiness – do you think, perhaps, that there are people in the world who cannot bear to see great happiness?’

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