Lady Ruth Williams Khama was Botswana’s first and most celebrated First Lady.
Born on the 9th of December 1923. Hailing from Blackheath, London, the former WAAF ambulance driver was a clerk at Lloyd’s of London when she met Sir Seretse Khama, the Paramount Chief of the Bamangwato tribe from Botswana. She was the daughter of a former captain in the Indian Army who was then in the tea trade.
She was in London during the Blitz, and left her education at Eltham High School to join the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force as an ambulance driver. Once peace returned, she began working as a confidential clerk in the claims department of Cuthbert Heath. She was an avid dancer and enjoyed ice-skating in her free time.
At the time, he was a student at a law college in Oxford called Balliol College. He was doing his undergraduate degree when they were acquainted and eventually fell in love through their mutual appreciation of jazz.
Of course, in the primitive cultures of yesteryear, there was no way that could work.
She was hounded out and abused for having a relationship with him, and he was threatened and insulted for being with her. Absolute strangers would single her out and call her a “prostitute” or a “slut” for no reason. Intolerance wasn’t a recurrent phenomenon – it was the norm. People everywhere seemed to stigmatize the young lady and her lover simply because their love had crossed a divide that should never have existed in the first place. It was the height of prejudice and they bore the brunt of much of the anger of a frustrated people.
Her father kicked her out of her house, her boss threatened to fire her (she chose to quit) and their marriage ceremony was halted and almost impeded by members of the British government.
By 1948, they had courted controversy all over the world for their audacity to challenge a racist society with their love – they were one of the few interracial couples in the world.
At the time, much of Africa was still under European colonialist rule and most of the colonialists enforced their barbaric rules with persecution and violence. Sir SeretseKhama was the heir to a portion of then Bechuanaland, which was still under British colonial rule. It was a protectorate of Britain and followed much of the policy desired by the British government.
When Lady Khama married Sir Khama, the British Labour Government immediately decided to hand him a harsh punishment – they would refuse to recognize the young man and would send him into exile!
Despite assurances to the Commons from (the Colonial Secretary) Patrick Gordon Walker that no foreign pressure had incited this ludicrous decision, there was someone else behind it. A group that has become notorious for their meddling and injustice, and that would only be taken down many decades later. A group that could not stand the idea of different people s sharing a bond.
The new National Government in South Africa lay just south of the young Sir Seretse Kahma’s heirloom. To the south of Bechuanaland, a racist new beast had been born, and they wanted to make sure that everybody in and around them adhered to their perverted and twisted apartheid regime. They didn’t want anybody to have any contact with people from other races and they dreamt of a world divided along racial lines. And this young couple were rightly challenging that primitive view of things, so they had to be dealt with. Otherwise, they would become an iconic symbol of Africa’s interracial and multi-cultural nature, and that was the last thing they wanted.
Thus, using their vital uranium resources as leverage, the apartheid regime requested that the English government punish the young chieftain. Even Trevor Huddlestone – who would later become archbishop of the Indian Ocean and a famous anti-apartheid activist – advised the High Commissioner to South Africa, Sir Evelyn Baring, not to recognize Sir Khama as the chieftain of the Bamangwato tribe. The Prime Minister (Clement Atlee) at the time was said to be opposed to the idea but stuck in a political game in order to ensure that vital trade links with the South African Government were not affected.
However, the young couple were not daunted by all the foolish people trying to break their relationship apart. Sir Seretse Khama took his newly-wed bride to his homeland, where he famously stood at an assembly and asked his people if they accepted his wife. 40 said no, and then 6,000 people rapturously applauded their young chief’s disregard for draconian rules and pure dedication to love.
When they were finally accepted and he was knighted, Lady Khama became an extremely popular figure within her new nation because of her devotion to charitable work and care for children. She raised their four kids (Ian Khama became president in 2008) to be intelligent and disciplined and she was a very politically active First Lady throughout her 14 years in that post, ending in 1980.
She resided in Botswana for almost all of her life after that and sadly passed away on the 22nd of May 2002 from throat cancer. She has come to represent an iconic struggle in Botswana’s history for the breaking down of social barriers and for justice. Despite the apartheid government’s evil attempts, she became exactly the symbolic figure they didn’t want her to be.