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Bechuanaland (Bamangwato Chieftainship)

Volume 499: debated on Wednesday 30 April 1952

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Butcher.]

11.48 p.m.

I am greatly honoured by the presence here of the Prime Minister to listen to this brief Adjournment debate on a question which the House considered only just over a month ago—the sad and difficult case of Seretse Khama.

The reason why it is necessary to raise it again tonight is that, as the House will be aware, since the last occasion on which we debated it, there has been in this country, and there still is here, a delegation from the Bamangwato Tribe, about which the Prime Minister remarked just now in one of his audible sotto voces—if that is the plural. Questions were also asked following a statement made in the House yesterday, and in another place, on the question of Seretse Khama and the delegation from the Bamangwato Tribe. In the course of his very extensive supplementary answers to those questions the hon. and learned Gentleman the Under-Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations misled the House—of course, unintentionally—in two not unimportant particulars.

I asked him a supplementary question about tribal custom with regard to consultation by a chief with the Tribe before marriage. My question was based upon the point made by the Bamangwato delegation in their submission to the Secretary of State, in which they said quite bluntly that it was not the custom of the Tribe for the chief to consult the Tribe before marriage. When I raised that in a supplementary question yesterday the hon. and learned Gentleman "shot me down" with quite a long and apparently quite a well-informed reply, in which he certainly seemed to know much more about the customs of the Bamangwato Tribe than the delegates from that Tribe themselves knew. Indeed, he said that the statements made by the delegation about the tribal custom were not correct. The only two instances they gave were the marriages of Khama III and Tshekedi. In the case of the marriage of Khama III, said the hon. and learned Gentleman, it was the marriage with his fourth wife and not with his principal wife which they mentioned.

What I must now tell him, because I am sure he was genuinely not aware of this when he gave that answer, is that it is equally true of the same chief, Khama III, that when he married his first and principal wife he did not consult the Tribe. The reason why, strange as it might seem to us, the delegates were not making the strongest case they could, and were using this other example of the fourth wife, instead of the first and principal wife, was because the first wife was the mother of Seretse Khama's father—and by their standards, and according to their etiquette, there is a certain delicacy in discussing the immediate ancestors of the present chief of the Tribe. I ask the hon. and learned Gentleman to accept this from me—I do not exactly understand this particular reaction of the delegation, but that is what they feel; and the fact is that there was no consultation before the marriage with the principal wife.

The second point on which the hon. and learned Gentleman was not altogether fair—and I think the Secretary of State was not at all fair in another place—was in his suggestion that possibly the status of the delegation from the Tribe, at present in this country, was not above question. He rather hinted that they were not as representative of the Tribe as they might be. He added that quite recently "persons of high standing" had presented a petition to the Secretary of State's predecessor, contesting their right to speak for the Tribe. What he did not say was that there was no such approach or petition from what might be called an "anti-Seretse" party. The approach and petition referred to were simply from a group of younger men, of the same age-group as Seretse Khama—one of them his consin and a strong supporter of his—who felt they would have liked to be in the delegation, too.

The only reason why they challenged the status or representative character of the delegation in any way was not because they thought it too strongly pro-Seretse, but because they thought it perhaps, too elderly, or at least felt that it would have been as well if some representatives of the younger people in the Tribe had been included. That is an understandable feeling, and no doubt they would have been included if it had not been necessary to limit the delegation rather strictly for reasons which have been explained—aeroplane space, expense, and so on. That is the second point on which I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman was not quite fair with the House yesterday.

But whether these particular arguments to which I have been referring were fair is not really relevant now. The question of consultation, or non-consultation, before marriage does not seem to matter very much, since it is agreed now on all sides—it was agreed yesterday again by the right hon. and learned Gentleman—that a majority of the Tribe now favours Seretse's return to the chieftainship, accepts the fact that his wife is a white woman, and wants her to go back with him. That is the essential point as regards the wishes of the Tribe. Therefore, I do not think it matters very much that in the earlier stage of the proceedings they were upset by the marriage. So it is necessary to consider the future rather than the past.

Whereas my right hon. Friend who was Secretary of State laid more stress on developing more democratic institutions and councils, I think it is true that the present Administration lays rather more stress on the importance of the chieftainship and native law and custom. But they are surely in an impossible dilemma, because native law and custom says that Seretse is chief, and must be, so long as he is alive, or until the Tribe itself deposes him. There is no possible alternative chief whom the Tribe will accept. The hon. and learned Gentleman has never suggested that a chief should be imposed upon them, and I suppose the hope is that if it is conveyed to the Tribe that Seretse is out for ever, its resistance will be worn down and that, perhaps in a year or two, it will agree to some alternative candidate. I think that that is an illusory hope. It is more likely that the Tribe will break up and that there will be no prospect of peace or unity within it.

The two names sometimes mentioned are those of Keaboka, who is acting temporarily, in a sense, as chief, or fulfilling some of the functions of leadership. As the House will know, he is at present in this country as leader of the delegation. He has made it clear to hon. Members of the House that he does not wish to be chief, even if he were acceptable as such to the Tribe, which he probably is not. He regards Seretse as the rightful chief. The other name mentioned is that of Rasebolai, and here again I gather that he at one time refused to contemplate succeeding to the chieftainship. I do not know whether the Government have been, or will be, able to persuade him to accept the idea, but I do not believe that he would be acceptable to the Tribe, because he left the territory with Tshekedi, and although he has, I think, returned, he is regarded more or less as an émigré. He is not regarded as being truly a member of the Tribe at present. I should have thought, therefore, that his claims to succeed to the chieftainship were rather thin.

Really, the only hope of securing that peace and unity within the Bamangwato Tribe which all of us in the House desire so sincerely—whatever mistakes have been made by either Government in the past—is the return of Seretse as chief, or perhaps in some nominally lower capacity in connection with the development of new democratic institutions and councils. Furthermore, apart from the situation within the Tribe, this would, after all, be an act of simple human justice. I contend that a great injustice has been done to two individuals—to a man and his wife.

In parenthesis, I may perhaps dispose very briefly of what is, I think, the only demagogic argument against Seretse. On the whole, I believe that public opinion in this country is overwhelmingly in his favour. But it is sometimes said that he is, after all, a chief, and chiefs and kings and princes are not always allowed to marry whom they will. We are given the example of the Duke of Windsor. That argument is not relevant, because King Edward VIII was removed from the Throne by his own people or their own Government. It was not an alien Government which interfered. It was not the Bamangwato who came here and said: "You must get rid of the King," or the Americans or anybody else; it was a matter for the British people. I contend that the chieftainship of Seretse is a matter for the Bamangwato people.

I should like to ask the hon. and learned Gentleman if, after all these years of evasive argument about this case, he will really "come clean" and tell us the real reasons for the ban on Seretse. We all know or suspect them; but will he tell us what happened—not in his term of office, I quite admit; and it would be quite easy for hon. Gentlemen opposite to make party points—about the end of July, 1949, when Seretse Khama had an interview with the High Commissioner, Sir Evelyn Baring, in the course of which Sir Evelyn Baring said to him, "You will be chief within about three weeks. Your chieftainship will be confirmed within about three weeks from now. Do not bring your wife out from England until after that, because once you are confirmed chief you can bring her to the Bamangwato, and there is nothing that Malan can do about it." That is what Sir Evelyn Baring, the High Commissioner, said to Seretse Khama at the end of July, 1949. A week or two later the whole position was changed. Different decisions were taken for reasons which I hope we shall be given tonight, and Seretse was brought back to England—as his Tribe thought, tricked into coming back to England.

It is the shadow of Malan that is always supposed to overhang this problem—the shadow of the Union Government and of racial prejudice in South Africa. I do not quite know the truth about that. I wish we could get it out of the hon. and learned Gentleman. Is it, as we are sometimes told privately, that it is thought to be really safer and better for the Bamangwato and the Protectorates than Malanite prejudice should not be stirred up any more on this issue, otherwise the Union Government might move in and take over these Protectorates, or apply economic sanctions to them, or something like that? If it is that, it is naked appeasement, in the worst sense of the word. One is forced to ask what the word "protectorate"means: are we the protecting power if we envisage Malan's being able to do that?

The other alternative which is sometimes suggested privately, and rumoured, is that there is some undertaking or understanding with the South African Government, that in the event of war South Africa would send one or maybe two divisions to the Middle East, and that the bargain is that if we do not upset them too much in this or some other way they will stay with us in the event of the third world war which we all hope is not going to happen. That seems also a craven and foolish attitude, if it is true, because, after all, it would be a very poor bargain indeed to exchange an hypothetical division or two at some future date, in a war in which, in any case, South Africa would obviously not be on the other side, for any goodwill and friendship and respect we may have left among hundreds of millions of Africans throughout the continent. It would be a very bad bargain.

I submit, therefore, that strategically and practically, as well as morally, both sides of the House have behaved quite wrongly about this case of Seretse, and I beg the hon. and learned Gentleman to tell us the real reasons for the ban, and, if possible, still to keep his mind open about reversing it.

12.7 a.m.

I think that all Members of the House have followed with great concern the story of this particular case, not only as it affects the people who have been involved, but also in so far as it affects the Tribe with which those people have been concerned. Decisions were made some months ago by the late Government which have led quite logically to the decision made by the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations within the last few weeks, and it seems to me to be totally wrong at the present time that hon. Gentlemen opposite should continue to raise and cause uncertainty upon a decision which the actions of their own Government at the time made inevitable.

It is even more important that we should get quite clear the motives which seem to prompt the continued raising of this particular question. I have felt strongly that it was in the interests of Seretse and of the Tribe that the decision should be regarded now as final, but the motives for continuing this controversy, regardless of the interests of this unfortunate man, appear to emerge from the last part of the speech of the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg). It seems to me that this is a recurrent effort, not concerned so much with the welfare of the Tribe, or with the real interests of the person concerned, to attack the policy of the South African Government.

There are Members on both sides, including myself, who regard the present policy of the South African Government as being wrong, but I do not think that it is right in the interests of justice or of statesmanship that this unfortunate young man and his particular misfortunes should be exploited in a political controversy of which there is no evidence whatever, and we have the word of the Ministers in the last Government, as we have the word of the Secretary of State and the Under Secretary at present in office, that that evidence does not exist.

I believe that it is quite wrong of the hon. Member for Maldon to come before the House and give currency to rumours which he cannot substantiate. It is easy to build a case upon gossip and rumours and supposition, but it seems to me to be quite contrary to the interests of the Tribe, of whom we are the protecting Power, and to the interests of African people as a whole.

Before the hon. Gentleman sits down, perhaps he will allow me to say—as he would not give way to an interruption—that his imputations of motive, which in this House we are not usually allowed to make, are beneath contempt and undeserving of an answer. Perhaps he will allow me instead to answer his earlier remark about how strange and wrong it was that I should attach something which followed logically from the action of the Labour Government. I attacked it equally strongly, and voted accordingly in the Lobby, when the Labour Government were in power.

12.11 a.m.

The hon. Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg) first alluded to the dynastic question, which was part of the subject of my supplementary answer yesterday. I think I understood his point, and he anticipated my comment. It is strange that the Bamangwato delegation should have put the weaker point before the stronger. I think we shall have to leave it as undecided. The hon. Gentleman himself said he did not understand the motive which would lead them to this delicacy, because it should be noted that Maoesibu, who was the first wife, was of royal blood, and where the wife is of royal blood it may well be that no consultation with the Tribe is necessary—

As I said yesterday, the information from South Africa is that they have no recorded instance of the Tribe not being consulted in the case of a principal wife. The fact still remains that the other instance, that of Tshekedi, was not apposite because it was not the case of the principal wife of a chief.

But he was in line for the chieftainship. Seretse was only a boy. If anything had happened to him, Tshekedi would have succeeded to the chieftainship and, therefore, if there was such a strong tradition of consultation one would have thought that there would have been consultation in this case.

I was only meeting the hon. Gentleman and the custom, as we understand it, is that the chief should consult about his principal wife. That, therefore, would not apply to Tshekedi if we are right about that being the tribal law and custom reinforced by Mr. Shapera and also by Seretse's own letter.

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. and learned Gentleman, but since he has referred to Mr. Shapera, he was the author of a handbook compiled a good many years ago. His interpreter, when he went round the Bamangwato getting material for that handbook, is now a member of that delegation, and his evidence about their customs is quite different from that of Mr. Shapera.

Mr. Shapera has always been looked on as a valuable authority on native law and custom.

With regard to the remarks of the hon. Gentleman about the majority of the Tribe, he will notice that if the views of the majority of the Tribe are to be paramount it is obvious that the majority of the Tribe in November and December, 1948, was against Seretse's marriage. Therefore, if the views of the majority of the Tribe were obtained that would have completely ended the matter then.

They were against his marriage, and, therefore, the majority of the Tribe at that moment would have excluded him if he had brought his wife back, as I understand the feeling of the kgotla was against his coming back with his wife. If the views of the majority of the Tribe are paramount, it is obvious that in November and December, 1948, that would have been the end of the matter.

If the view of the majority of the Tribe has changed, as my noble Friend said in another place, they can change again. Therefore, I do not think that the hon. Gentleman can found his argument on the views of the majority of the Tribe.

In the three or four minutes that I have left I want to allude to what the hon. Gentleman said on the general question. First of all, I have no knowledge of what was happening at the end of July, 1949. I can only repeat that no understanding, no conditions and no approaches were made by the Government of South Africa to us, and from my knowledge of the subject there is no kind of bargain or even half-understood arrangement or anything of that kind about a division on the one side and against that the exclusion of Seretse from the chieftainship. I think it is a pity that the hon. Member suggested that it might be possible for the Tribe to disintegrate and there was no prospect of peace. Remarks like that can only—

I think the fact that the hon. Member for Maldon says it lends greater weight to something which this delegation have said and which they obviously may use as a bargaining point in their argument. The hon. Member for Maldon lends his opinion and knowledge to a matter on which he cannot really give an opinion. All he can say is what he was told by the delegation, but he goes further and says that in his opinion it is likely to happen. He must wish that the Tribe will settle down and I imagine, although he may disagree with this decision, he wishes the Tribe to be united again. In his heart of heart he hopes that the decision will not lead to the Tribe's disintegration.

That is what he may think, but I was trying to get him to admit that he hopes that the Tribe will be united again and will settle down. That is my point.

If the hon. Member has that hope I think it regrettable that he gives it as his opinion that the Tribe will disintegrate. In those circumstances I can only regret the way in which the hon. Member has harped on this prospect of disunity and also alluded to rumours which have been current and which are without foundation.

Before the hon. and learned Gentleman sits down, will he not "come clean" and tell us the real reason for the exclusion of Seretse after all this time?

The hon. Gentleman knows the reasons. They are those given by his own Government in 1949 and 1950, and Her Majesty's Government today believe that that temporary decision should be turned into a permanent one.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock on Wednesday evening, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Nineteen Minutes past Twelve o'Clock a.m.