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Bechuanaland (Bamangwato Tribe Chieftainship)

Volume 498: debated on Thursday 27 March 1952

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With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I wish to make a statement on the chieftainship of the Bamangwato tribe in the Bechuanaland Protectorate.

Her Majesty's Government have given careful and prolonged consideration to the succession to the chieftainship of the Bamangwato tribe in the Bechuanaland Protectorate and Seretse Khama's claim to be recognised as chief.

The White Paper issued by the previous Administration in March, 1950 (Cmd. 7913), which withheld recognition from Seretse Khama as chief, promised review of the position in five years. It also provided that both Seretse and his uncle, Tshekedi Khama, should remain outside the Bamangwato Reserve, that the functions of the Native Authority should be vested in the District Commissioner, and that a system of councils should be established which would progressively assume responsibility for the administration of the tribe. Tshekedi Khama has since voluntarily renounced all claim to the chieftainship both for himself and his children.

The principal reasons cited in the White Paper in support of the previous Administration's decisions were as follow. In accordance with the customs of his tribe Seretse, as chief-designate should have consulted his people when he contemplated choice of a consort. His failure to do so betokened a lack of responsibility in a potential ruler and by his precipitate marriage he was unmindful of the interests of his tribe and of his public duty.

The tendency in the Bamangwato tribe to disputes about the succession would be aggravated by uncertainty as to their future attitude towards the children of the marriage. For these reasons, to use the words of the White Paper, Seretse Khama's recognition would be against the unity and well-being of the tribe.

The White Paper also recorded that both in the High Commission Territories and in other parts of Southern Africa, there was both among prominent Africans and Europeans a considerable weight of opinion opposed to recognition of Seretse as chief.

It is true that a considerable proportion of the tribespeople have, on occasion, demonstrated their readiness to designate Seretse as chief. But, as pointed out in the White Paper of 1950, and I quote,
"H.M. Government have a wide responsibility for the well-being and good government of the Protectorate as a whole and of the other High Commission Territories. In particular, they have in this respect a duty in matters of disputed successions that they must discharge. The opinion of the Tribal assembly can only be one of the factors contributing to their decision."
Her Majesty's Government agree with the reasons adduced by their predecessors in withholding recognition from Seretse. But the promise to review this decision in five years and the indeterminate and unusual character of the temporary arrangements contemplated, which conflicted gravely with customary tribal procedure, have not proved satisfactory or conducive to the well-being and happiness of the tribe.

The hopes expressed in the White Paper of 1950 have not been fulfilled, namely, that the arrangements set out in it would lead to the disappearance of the tendencies to disruption which threatened the unity and well-being of the tribe. It is now clear that affection for traditional institutions is so strong that settled conditions and satisfactory administration will not be restored to the Bamangwato until they again have a recognised chief.

It has become essential, therefore, to bring to an end the uncertainty arising from the limited duration of the decision announced in the White Paper, and to terminate as soon as possible what can only be a temporary expedient of direct rule by European officers. Her Majesty's Government have accordingly been obliged to review the position without further delay.

For the reasons stated in the White Paper, Seretse Khama, unhappily, made it impracticable for Her Majesty's Government's predecessors to accord him recognition as chief. But the interests of the Bamangwato demand that there should be a chief and Her Majesty's Government, having reviewed the situation, have decided that their predecessors' refusal to recognise Seretse must be confirmed and made permanent and final, and that the tribe should be invited to put forward in due course a candidate other than Seretse or Tshekedi.

They have also decided that good government and the well-being of the Reserve require that Seretse Khama should absent himself from the Protectorate until an alternative chief has been securely established with his own native administration.

Her Majesty's Government are, naturally, concerned that the future of Seretse Khama and his wife should be secured in another sphere where he could well have a useful and successful career. They have informed him that the Jamaica Government have offered him a Government post in that Colony. This offer remains open to him for a limited time and Her Majesty's Government hope that he will, on further consideration, find it possible to accept it.

This is a very grave and serious statement which is bound to have very serious repercussions which, I think, we can only discuss in a full debate. In the meanwhile, I should like to ask the hon. and learned Gentleman two questions: Does he not agree that this decision of the Government is calculated to create the worst possible impression in that tribe and to appear to them to be a deliberate provocation of their expressed views? They have made it clear that they want Seretse Khama back and they do not want Tshekedi Khama. Now, as a result of all the Government actions taken together, they are having the very opposite to what they wanted and this must appear to them to be a trampling of their wishes. Does the hon. and learned Gentleman not agree that it is calculated to fill them with alarm?

Second, why has this decision been announced at this particular moment? Is it to forestall the deputation coming from Bechuanaland and to give some ground for the Secretary of State to refuse to see them, in which case that is a very shabby and discreditable action, unworthy of the British Government? If it is not that, why is it being done at this moment?

In answer to the first part of that question, I do not agree with the statement made by the right hon. Gentleman. With regard to the second part, the object of this statement being made now is to end the uncertainty which, in the view of Her Majesty's Government, has created conditions which make the proper administration of the tribe impossible. That is the reason for making this statement now.

I do not wish to comment on the statement, but I think that two points ought to be made clear. Is it the intention of Her Majesty's Government to exclude Seretse Khama permanently from residence with the Bamangwato Tribe, or is it only to exclude him from the position of chief?

The second point is that an arrangement was made by the previous Government by which an annual payment is being made to Seretse Khama. Will that payment be continued, together with the revenue to which he is rightly entitled, and handed to him, irrespective of anything that he does, in addition to anything else that he may have?

The answer to the first supplementary question put by the right hon. and learned Gentleman is, "Yes." Her Majesty's Government have not taken any decision permanently and in all circumstances to exclude Seretse from his native land. With regard to the second supplementary question, the salary in Jamaica would be paid in addition to any allowance made by the previous Government and would be continued by Her Majesty's Government.

May I put two questions to the hon. and learned Gentle- man? First of all, in view of this decision, is it Her Majesty's Government's intention and decision that they will not receive representations from the representatives of the tribe, who are, I think, on their way, or are contemplating coming, to this country very soon?

Second, in coming to this permanent and final decision at this time, have Her Majesty's Government taken into account what is happening now in Africa? Was the Colonial Secretary consulted? Do not the Government realise that, in view of what is happening in Central and Southern Africa these days, this can only lead to the gravest possible disturbances there and will be taken by the Africans all over that great continent, where amicable racial relationships are so important, as being in keeping with some other things that the Government have done?

The decision is that of Her Majesty's Government as a whole, and it was made for the reason which I have stated—the well-being of the tribe itself. In the view of Her Majesty's Government, the happenings to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred do not affect the timing of the decision. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] It has been made for the reason I have said.

With regard to the right hon. Gentleman's question as to whether my noble Friend would receive the deputation from the Bamangwato—it is not certain whether they are coming or not, I believe—the answer is that that would not help. No obstacle is placed in the way of their coming to this country and they have been issued with passports, but my noble Friend has said that he is not willing to see them as all the arguments are known—[HON. MEMBERS: "Shame!"]—and this is a matter for Seretse Khama's own decision.

May I follow up this question? This is of enormous importance at this stage. The decision to refuse to see the representatives of the African people who desire to come here to see the Minister is a policy calculated to lead to grave damage to our reputation in Africa. Will Her Majesty's Government reconsider this matter and postpone a decision until the representatives of the tribe have made representations to them?

My noble Friend will consider anything which the right hon. Gentleman, with his experience, may suggest.

Is my hon. and learned Friend aware that this decision follows absolutely inevitably from the decision of the previous Government? [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] Is it not time that the interests of this unfortunate young man were considered rather than that he should be used as a political catspaw?

To clear up the two points raised by the two right hon. Gentlemen opposite, will my hon. and learned Friend tell the House what opinions were expressed at the recent kgotla? Were they unanimous opinions in favour of Seretse's return? What opinions were expressed?

The opinions expressed at the latest kgotla of which I have recollection were mainly in favour of the return of Seretse—[An HON. MEMBER: "Unanimously."]—I am subject to correction by the hon. Gentleman—but, as stated in the White Paper by my predecessors, the views of the kgotla are not the only considerations. Her Majesty's Government have a responsibility with regard to this tribe and matters of succession, and that is only one of the factors which they must take into account.

On a point of order. I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 9 in order to call attention to a definite matter of urgent public importance, namely, the action of the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations in deposing Seretse Khama as Chief-Designate of the Bamangwato tribe.

I am asked to accept a Motion for the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 9 to consider the action of the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations in deposing Seretse Khama as Chief-Designate of the Bamangwato tride.

I must confess that this matter is new to me. Do I understand from the statement which has been made that Seretse Khama is deposed from his position in the tribe?

I assure the House that my only desire is to arrive at the truth about this matter. Owing to the events of last night, I have not had sufficient notice of this, and it is the first time that I have seen it. As I understand the position, this young man is now forbidden to go into the territory.

He is excluded from the chieftainship—[HON. MEMBERS: "That is a play on words."]—but he is not being deposed from the chieftainship because he never was chief.

On a point of order. Will you ask the hon. and learned Gentleman to refresh the mind of the House, Mr. Speaker, about the relevant passage of his statement, so that you may be clear as to the intention?

That was what I was about to do. The essential words are in paragraph 7, as follows:

"… Her Majesty's Government … have decided that their predecessors' refusal to recognise Seretse must be confirmed and made permanent and final. …"
The new thing is the making permanent and final of the refusal to recognise Seretse.

This new statement involves a change of policy and not just a difference in the degree of policy, in that hitherto Seretse Khama was not excluded from the position of heir to the chieftainship and the matter was left in the air for five years, but that he is now permanently to be excluded from the line of succession.

Might I just recall to your mind, Mr. Speaker, the actual legal position? Under the Bechuanaland Ordinances, the position is that it is in the power of the tribe to designate somebody as a chieftain, but until such time as Her Majesty, as advised by her Ministers here, accords her agreement to his occupying that position, he is unable to do so.

What has happened in this case is that Her Majesty's Government have now announced that under no circumstances are they prepared to agree to the person who has been designated by the tribe ever occupying the position to which the tribe wish to raise him. That is an entirely new situation, and it is one which is very likely to arouse the gravest difficulties throughout the whole of the Commonwealth, particularly without holding a colonial conference.

Has the Motion of the hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) the support of the House?

The pleasure of the House having been signified, the Motion stood over, under Standing Order No. 9, until Seven o'Clock this evening.

As Government business today is of the greatest importance would you, Mr. Speaker, consider following the precedent set by your predecessor in 1920 when a Motion of this kind was accepted but was postponed on the advice of Mr. Speaker so that Government business could continue?

These Motions have to be brought up at the earliest possible time or else they lose their priority, but so far as the subject matter for the debate is concerned, it can be postponed to another day. I am told that there are cases where it has been done. [HON. MEMBERS "No."] In that case we had better let it stand. The time lost in discussing this Motion will, of course, be added to the time of the other business.

In view of the fact that the business before the House today is the Second Reading of the National Health Service Bill, which is of the utmost importance, and as the debate will be interrupted at 7 o'Clock, will the Government consider giving another day for the completion of the Second Reading? Could I have a reply?

The Standing Order provides that if time is taken out of the business hours of the day on such an Adjournment Motion as that proposed, then that time is made up after the expiration of the debate on the Adjournment Motion.

That is as relevant as the right hon. Gentleman's usual answers on this matter. The point I am raising is this: Is it desirable to continue after 10 o'Clock to debate the Second Reading of so important a matter as the National Health Service Bill, or does the right hon. Gentleman want to hide it from the public gaze?

In fairness, it ought to be said that when this Bill was put down for discussion today the Government had no knowledge whatsoever that a Motion of this sort would be moved.

Now that they have the knowledge, could we ask the Leader of the House if we could not continue the debate on the National Health Service Bill on Monday? There does not seem to be anything of first-rate importance on Monday.