From London, Grammy Award-winning composer, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, has announced plans to make a musical about another sir (Seretse Khama) and his lady (Ruth). You can bet on two things: a) that the production will restate what the world already knows about the jungle-fever romance between the ill-starred African prince and an English secretary; and b) that Seretse’s full story will remain untold until after an opposition government. There can of course be no limit to artistic work that can be made about any one subject but there is something deeply troubling about how Seretse and Ruth Khama’s story has been told. Practically all storytellers who have made them subjects confine themselves to their romance – and there is nothing wrong with illuminating this dimension because it is part of their lives.
What is wrong is that by sticking to it, both subjects are denied the multi-dimensionality of their characters and legacies. In Seretse’s case, people are never acquainted with the other parts of his being: the controversial heir apparent to a dynasty of international renown, the father, the political party leader and most importantly, the president of a Third World country that travelled from world’s poorest to one of the most durable economies in record time. With regard to the latter, one western scholar who studies governance, Dr. John Holms, says that it would be prudent to study Botswana in order to understand why it made said journey in the manner it did. It remains a source of great irony that not one book or movie considers the legacy of Botswana’s main founding father as a father to his own children. To be fair, Seretse-Ruth productions deal with such elements but only to the extent that they enrich the Mills & Boon dimension they make prominent.
More than a decade ago, the creator of a hugely popular South African soap opera was speaking to some Batswana in TV production about the possibility of a Seretse-Ruth Khama soapie airing on Btv. Although the project never took off one can bet that the formula of the production would not have been fundamentally different from the standard fare that has been ladled out by other foreign creators over decades. And with very good reason: it makes commercial sense to anchor this story on the one narrative platform that promises high viewership. While this distorts the historical record, it is important to note that Seretse Khama’s story is larger than its Days of Our Lives dimension and that as long as outsiders tell his story, the other dimensions of his life will never be explored.
However, there is also having to acknowledge that here at home, present circumstances don’t allow a proper telling of Seretse Khama’s story. By African standards and as a result of its tribal diversity, Botswana should long have experienced armed conflict but as the country celebrates its golden jubilee, that has not happened. Seretse was without doubt a capable leader and rightly gets credit for that. He also allowed the opposition enough freedom to vent and operate as much as it wanted and that proved a huge boon to national security. However, he was not an angel and there are areas where he failed the nation badly. Fearful of the political leverage that the Botswana National Front (BNF) would get from the brigades movement (the movement’s founder, Patrick Van Rensburg was a member) Seretse actively withheld governmental support. Had he done needful, Botswana would likely be far ahead of Zimbabwe in terms of vocational education.
The government only supports and encourages projects that sing Seretse’s praises but one can say with certainty that when a new government assumes official power, it would be inclined towards demonising the founding president - not least because his larger-than-life mystique is the bedrock of BDP support. To an extent, the latter period will see a distortionary revision of Botswana and Seretse’s history and it will be some time before that history can be objectively told, warts and all.