How much social prejudice would you endure to change the world?
In the 1940s, the interracial marriage of Prince Seretse Khama, heir to the Bechuanaland throne, to an English clerk, Ruth Williams, shocked the world. The couple faced criticism from his royal uncle, but soon won over the people of his nation, who were reluctant to lose his leadership. Having banned interracial marriage, the South African government exerted pressure on the United Kingdom to have him removed from power. Since England relied on inexpensive South African gold and uranium, they investigated his leadership, then suppressed the report (which found him fit to rule) and sent him and his wife into exile in 1951.
Both governments allowed Seretse to return with his wife after he renounced his throne. Discontent with farming, he founded the country’s first Democratic Party, which beat the other parties in the elections, and made him Prime Minister. When Botswana gained independence, he became their first president. Botswana was the world’s third-poorest country, with a minimal infrastructure and rampant illiteracy. Seretse instituted strong measures against corruption, adopted market-friendly policies to foster economic development, promised low and stable taxes to mining companies, liberalized trade, increased personal freedoms, and promoted non-racism, which led to Botswana having the fastest-growing economy in the world between 1966 and 1980.
Liberation from his kingship enabled Seretse to help set in place a fair democratic system which gave his people a choice in national elections! Seretse took something negative that had happened to him (the loss of his status and role as a monarch) as the result of greed and global policies and shaped the world toward a greater future, instead of mourned his loss.
The film A United Kingdom focuses on the social injustices waged against Seretse and Ruth, beginning with their meeting and courtship, and ending with his return to Botswana after his exile. It shows the racism on both sides as Ruth finds few Africans willing to support or interact with her, and rejection from the whites in Africa, and her father disinheriting her. White men harass them on a London street; Seretse’s sister and aunt ream her over the coals for “daring” to marry him and destroying all he has built; the couple endure forced separation, when the government refuses to let him return to Africa, where she waits for him.
But there’s also an outpouring of support, in England and in Africa, as the people gather to prevent the government from removing Ruth, and stand up for Seretse remaining in power when called to a vote; they refuse to turn up when the government wants them to oust him; in London, reporters and crowds gather to cheer them on.
From an objective stance, the marriage jeopardized all the wonderful ideas Seretse had for the future of his nation. In a racist world, it made both sides uncomfortable, flouted all the social conventions of the period, and elicited abuse toward them as a couple. Marriage is hard and having half the world want you to fail and fall apart makes it even harder.
Or does it?
Sometimes when the world stands against you, it strengthens your bond. Seretse could not see into the future, he could not know he would bring Democracy to Botswana. He operated on his love of Ruth, which everyone around him argued was selfish, but it flouted conventions that needed challenged. There is the slow path to racial progress and the fast one which creates controversy, forcing racism into the public eye.
Seretse and Ruth remind us that the greatest changes can require the biggest sacrifices, and sometimes, the worst persecution. Much of what happened, they brought on themselves in the belief the world was more progressive than it was. In a crucial scene in the movie, a ragged-looking Ruth admits, “I think we misjudged the situation.”
They did, but then they made the best of it, to work together for their mutual benefit, to protect and love one another despite all odds, and to become a symbol of unity between races and nations. It’s a beautiful lesson about the world-altering power of true love.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Charity Bishop devotes her free time to eating chocolate, debating theology with her friends, researching the Tudors, writing books, blogging, and searching for spiritual truth in all aspects of life.