Before she began working on her new film A United Kingdom, Amma Asante had never heard of Seretse Khama. Now she's bringing his story to the big screen and hopes it will illuminate a seemingly forgotten part of British post-war history.
In 1947, Seretse Khama, an African prince training to be a lawyer in London, met and fell in love with Ruth Williams, an English bank clerk. But their interracial relationship and plans to wed and return to Seretse's native Bechuanaland (modern Botswana) was greeted by fierce family and political opposition.
"We absolutely admit that none of us knew about this story before it came to us in the form of this project," says the film's director Amma Asante.
"Ten years ago financiers were saying we don't make period projects about unknown people – they wanted Mozarts and Churchills and people that you knew about.
"But that's been changing over the last few years and film is being allowed to expose stories that people haven't heard of and audiences are proving that that interests them."
The project was brought to Asante by David Oyelowo, who plays Seretse in A United Kingdom opposite Rosamund Pike as Ruth.
Introducing the film to the audience at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it had its world premiere, Asante described Seretse and Ruth as "people who held onto life with both hands".
The film, she added, showed "the fall out that happened when they fell in love".
Asante expands on the subject when we meet in a Toronto bar the following day.
"Someone described Seretse and Ruth as the Burton and Taylor of their time," she laughs.
"She was this fashionable creature in these little black suits and he had this trilby hat. They were front page news."
Based on Susan Williams' book Colour Bar, A United Kingdom portrays how opposition to Seretse and Ruth's marriage went much wider than their immediate families.
The South African government – about to introduce apartheid – could not tolerate the idea of an interracial couple ruling a neighbouring country.
It pressured Britain to stop the union by threatening to cut off the supplies of the uranium and gold Britain needed for its nuclear programme and to rebuild its post-war economy.
Asante, who grew up in south London as the child of Ghanaian immigrants, welcomes the number of other films on this year's festival circuit – such as The Birth of a Nation and Loving – that examine racial prejudice from a historical perspective.
"We are in highly politicised times," she says.
"America is just coming out of a period where it had its first black president and it might be about to vote in its first woman president.
"Britain just voted itself out of Europe. Some people said it had nothing to do with xenophobia, some people say it did.
"In these highly politicised times you get polarisation. There is very little in the middle. At that time the job of the film-maker is to reflect society and the conversations that are going on.
"A really tangible way to explore politics is through race."
It was important to Asante that the African scenes were filmed in Botswana. She used some of the actual locations associated with Seretse and Ruth, such as the house where they first lived.
"We had to put the house back together, literally. It was a derelict shell," she recalls.
"We recreated the looks of the rooms through old photographs. The hospital in the scene where Ruth gives birth to their baby is the actual hospital where Seretse was born."
How well is the story known in Botswana?
"Not as well as I thought," says Asante. "But I'm going to get lashed on Twitter from people saying 'you didn't get this right, you didn't get that right'.
"But, in the way that [Asante's previous film] Belle is now taught in schools, I hope this will also make a difference too, across Africa."
Seretse died in 1980, having been Botswana's first president since 1966. Ruth, who had been the First Lady of Botswana until her husband's death, died in 2002.
As our interview comes to an end, Asante reveals that Seretse's grandson had attended the premiere the previous night.
Furthermore, Seretse's son, Ian Khama, is now the fourth elected president of Botswana.
"We were in conversation with the president while we were making the film as well as many family members," says Asante. "They certainly didn't tell us the kind of film to make."
She recalls how President Khama arrived in his helicopter while they were filming in a village.
"I remember him looking out of the corner of his eye at Rosamund and David and saying, 'It's really weird to see your parents coming back to life'."
A United Kingdom opens in the UK on 25 November and will open the London Film Festival on 5 October.
It opens with a fascinating and vivid film revolving around the colonial history of British government duplicity, South Africa’s power under President Malan’s regime and the enduring love and controversial marriage of the King of (the then British Protectorate) Bechuanaland, Seretse Khama and London secretary Ruth Williams.
In 1947, Seretse Khama, studying law in London, met Ruth at a Missionary Society ‘do’. Both felt liberated by the social upheaval that followed the Second World War but their proposed marriage was challenged not only by their respective families but also by the British and South African governments.
The latter had recently introduced the policy of apartheid and found the notion of a biracial couple ruling a neighbouring country intolerable. South Africa threatened the British: either thwart the couple or be denied access to South African uranium (vital for the British nuclear programme) and gold (vital to replenish reserves following the war) and face the risk of South Africa invading Botswana.
Despite the terrible pressures they faced, Seretse and Ruth fought for their love every step of the way, breaching centuries of old tradition and being pawns in the British game of colonial politics. The result is modern-day Botswana.
Starring David Oyelowo (who also produces) as Khama, Rosamund Pike as Ruth and directed by Amma Asante (Belle), this is a sumptuous film with breath-taking scenes of Africa and absorbing views of post-wartime London. It is shot in actual places in Botswana like the Khama’s house, Serowe and Palpaye and the strong cast includes Jack Davenport, Tsotsi’s Terry Pheto as Seretse’s sister, Vusi Kunene as Seretse’s uncle, the Regent Tshekedi Khama and Nicholas Lyndhurst (Only Fools and Horses).
Mpho Donald was undoubtedly the IT girl of the then tedious beauty industry. She loved looking pretty and smelling good. Of course, this is every girl’s dream, but making a living out of it doesn’t flash into many of these girls’ dreams.
Besides, it used to be a lot more common for the majority of entrepreneurs to be male in the past. However, in recent years the number of female entrepreneurs in the world has been on the rise. She is from a family of business-minded people. Both parents were entrepreneurs, but that is not why Donald is a powerful woman in this entrepreneurial space. At one point, life threw lemons at her, and she made lemonade.
At the age of 38, Donald has been to South Africa more than once. These frequent hazardous trips at the time were to acquire secret elements into being a real hustler. She would get robbed, risk being raped or hijacked, but she survived.
“At one point, life got too difficult to an extent where I found myself doing piece jobs for other people just so I earn something to buy toiletry, food and clothes even. I did laundry, and in the entire process, I got tired. I had to think about business, and it was easy because I come from a line of people who believe in trading. Somehow I got motivated, but I never wanted to work for anyone in life.”
Before embarking on shadowing missions in South Africa, Donald would go around the capital city, hunting for customers. Kgale Mews, Commerce Park are urban offices for various companies, but this did not restrict her from knocking, selling makeup, jewellery and accessories.
She was known for this particular hustle in all the offices. Some people will get exhausted because of her irritating products, but that did not stop her from acquiring a tiny spot in Main Mall. She pitched her gazibo, and her next items on display were plus size women’s outfits. These women are often overlooked, especially on beauty pageantry. The controversial Miss Plus Size Botswana pageant never saw the light of the day ever again.
“I guess that was after I saw the pains of plus-sized women when it came to shopping for something to wear. Being a plus-size woman made it easy for me to penetrate this space. I modelled all my clothes and advertised them on social media.”
Social media opened many doors for so many entrepreneurs. Donald can attest to that. She told Weekendlife that “People started coming in to buy both makeup and the clothes. Then, later on, I started selling second-hand clothes and while at it, I moved to my first shop. I think for me taking risks has never really been any scary because I convinced myself that in any case, I fall, I will rise again.”
“So I went boldly into everything that I could do at the time. I would travel to South Africa to places I never knew. I got my stock there, and even when I got robbed, I knew I would eventually reach my destination. It surely wasn’t an easy walk in a park, but I persevered,” she said.
From her mini boutique, Donald went full force into buying and supplying second-hand clothes. “As the COVID-19 lockdowns hit us, I was busy at work pushing the idea on mini bails and second-hand clothes. So it came down to my mind that I have to know what to sell in which season. It was a trial and error kind of hustle, but once you get a grip of it, you begin to sail smoothly.”
Donald currently supplies small businesses across the country. She gets to enjoy a good relationship with her customers, who are in other countries even. “It took me much effort, commitment and loyalty to be where I am today. I guess I could now boldly say that hard work is beginning to pay off. I have started knocking on bigger doors for partnerships, and I believe that if I can get them, beauty plus size clothing will be elevated to the next level.”
Mpho Donald is originally from Serowe. She studied her O and A-levels in Zimbabwe at the Specis College. Still, in Zimbabwe, she enrolled and qualified as a Travel and Tourism expert. She said in an interview that she will be venturing into other hustles too but couldn’t reveal which ones now. Donald is optimistic that everything will be ready and served in 2022.
After being announced as the next Miss Global Botswana, social media was ablaze, and curiosity was flown all over on whether Sakshi Bhargava is a native Motswana or the crown has incongruously been given to a non-citizen. Many Miss Global Botswana fans were breakneck in assuming that the queen is Indian, probably because the parents are of Indian descent and she looks Indian.
In a similar incident early this May, Miss Universe Canada Nova Stevens was chastened for being black. The beauty queen admitted that she’s disappointed with the behaviour of some pageant fans from other countries, noting that their hate takes away from the fun and enjoyment of the pageant.
“Is it that difficult to spread love instead of hate? No one is saying you have to support all contestants. All we’re saying is that you support your delegate without bringing others down,” she said. She called out racist comments on her Instagram criticizing her appearance. Stevens is of Sudanese descent. The remarks included: “Akala ko engkanto (I thought she was a mythical creature),” and “Hindi naman sa hinuhusgahan ko siya pero natatakot ako, promise. Parang hindi siya tao.” (I’m not judging her, but I’m terrified. It’sIt’s like she’s not a human being.)
Miss Global Botswana Bhargava told Weekendlife that she was born and brought up in Francistown, 19-years ago. She started her primary school in John Mackenzie and did her A-levels in Francistown, where she served as Deputy Head girl.
Her parents, she said, moved to Botswana from India in 1988. Technically, they have been in Botswana for 33 years. That then means they are Batswana by citizenship. According to data from the Ministry of Nationality, Immigration, and Gender Affairs, for a citizen of another country to qualify for Botswana citizenship, that person must satisfy few conditions.
The applicant has been resident in Botswana for a continuous period of 12 months immediately to the date of their application for a naturalization certificate. They should have been resident in Botswana for aggregate periods of not less than ten years during the 12 years immediately preceding the 12 months prescribed above. The applicant shall renounce the other country’s citizenship.
“Being born and brought up in Botswana, I have grown up learning Botswana culture, understanding Setswana, and I pride myself in being a Motswana by birth but Indian by race. We were lovingly welcomed into a very diverse nation. They fell in love with Botswana, and from then, they knew that this was the place where they wanted to birth and raise their children such that we grew up knowing this peaceful nation to be our home.”
“Our national flag, the black and white colors symbolize collaboration between people of diverse races and culture and a belief in racial cooperation and equality. I am proudly one of the first representations of the diversity our country has especially in the pageantry industry and I am fully equipped to represent our country.”
Bhargava further indicated that the Botswana culture is more of her identity than anything else as she has always known Botswana to be her home. “One should not be judged by race but should rather be embraced by character.”
BEAUTY WITH A PURPOSE
Having started pageantry at the age of 16, Bhargava has been a beauty queen with a purpose. She has worn two crowns too. In 2016, she was crowned Junior Miss Botswana 2nd princess and Miss Teen Hope 1st princess in 2017. During the past few years, she has also been pursuing ambassadorship with few companies.
“I became the brand ambassador of three local brands: the Diamond Pageantry Academy, BushT Fashions, and Em’s beauty Spa. She founded a non-governmental organization called Able Hearts Foundation. This is an NGO that strives to create equality for people living with disabilities.
“It runs with a slogan dubbed ”We are all equal in the fact that we are all different”. I believed that I am a true representation of what a beauty queen can help the community and how we have the ability to make the world a better place,” she told WeekendLife in an exclusive interview this week.
She started Able Hearts Foundation in 2017 after she realized that people faced with disabilities were ridiculed and made fun of, and, “I knew that as a teenager, I needed to stand up for this community and educate my peers on how to treat people faced with disabilities as equal in the society. For over 4 years now, I have worked with the Francistown Center for the Deaf Education, the Lephoi Center for the visually impaired and the Mochudi Resource Center for the blind.”
The newly crowned queen said she has worked with many more children living with disabilities and made it her mandate to nurture their talents and empower them to the point where they know and trust that they are equally important.
ATTENDING MISS GLOBAL IN INDONESIA
Miss Global organization has announced through their Instagram account that the competition is back, and a new edition is set to be held this September in Bali, Indonesia, with more than 80 delegates expected to participate.
Bhargava will be representing Botswana at the beauty competition, and she is ready to bring the crown home. “I entered the pageant industry at a very young age and my biggest dream was to represent Botswana on an international stage.
I applied to Miss Global organization as Botswana’s representative to hope that I would get a chance to truly showcase all of the hard work I have been putting into my ambitions of putting Botswana on the global map in allowedy. I am very excited to have been given the opportunity to live one of my biggest dreams.”
Botswana’s entertainment industry is finding it hard to survive the COVID-19 uproar because it has been shut for, literally, two years now. Artists are bankrupt, their marriages are dwindling, and misery is kicking them to the last drop. The country is bored to death. There is no delight as social events have been given rain check.
The country’s preeminent entertainers, too, are finding it hard to make ends meet. Keeping their heads above the water is grim all because of the contagious contagion, COVID-19. It is survival of the fittest, and only a few strong ones are surviving.
Team Distant, our very own Afro/Deep house duo, too, felt the heat. The Kave Ngoma hitmakers, who initially were four, and now cropped to two, went international before COVID-19. The duo decided to spread their wings and learn different cultural music to explore more diverse cultures and probably have fun. The ‘I believe I can fly’ dream was cut short by the devastating pandemic.
In an exclusive interview with WeekendLife this week, one of the group members, Aron Motlhabane, said COVID-19 has utterly affected their music plans for two years, leaving the duo crashed. “We are travel enthusiasts, and in 2019, we made it upon ourselves to travel abroad and gain more experience music-wise. The tour was cut short by COVID-19, and in the entire process, we lost so many international gigs. There is absolutely zero income coming in,” Motlhabane said.
However, that did not deflate the duo, and attention shifted to creating more music and trading it online. Team Distant is one particular band that sells music on digital platforms (iTunes, Spotify, and Deezer).
“We created more content so that by the time they lift the ban on entertainment, we have something to feed our followers and entertain them. COVID-19 affected us severely, but somehow we picked few lessons. We hope for the best, though, with time, and that’s when our aspirations will resume,” he said.
Motlhabane told Weekendlife that the duo has been releasing Extended Plays (EPs) with international record labels. Team Distant worked with Nngondona record label in Kenya, Aluke records in London, and local music producers.
“People have been downloading our music on digital platforms such as iTunes, and of course, we got something from royalties. It is tough to survive now as an artist, but we are grateful that the Ministry of Youth Empowerment, Sport and Culture Development came to the party. It was little monies but better than nothing,” Motlhabane said.
Team Distant has a robust and consistent relationship with La Timmy, a Kasane native DJ. However, the duo identified yet another talented vocalist, Jinger Stone, whom they featured on their latest release, Colder than water.
Her record label recommended Jinger Stone to work with Team Distant on Colder than water, which is currently number one on iTunes. She is relatively new in the music industry, having made her debut appearance a year ago. Aged 19, this young woman is destined for more incredible things in life, and she pounded the song from the hook to the chorus.
THE MAKING OF COLDER THAN WATER
When talking to Weekendlife about the making of Colder than Water, Aaron said the song was created from just two minds getting together to combine something people can dance to. “When I heard this beat, I was shocked. I took a short video using my phone, and I felt something could come out of it. Choosing the vocalist was not hard because the song is sad.
We wanted someone to pour all the emotions into it. I sent the song to Jinger Stone and told her to write something sad that people will all relate to. She did exactly that,” said Aaron. Colder than water is a poetic song with a lot of metaphors that talk about life. It is a feeling. Team Distant was amazed by the demo she sent a day later. “We felt she has that thing that we have been looking for.
She has that powerful energy in her, and we believe in her so much. All hands down for her,” Motlhabane said. La Timmy told Weekendlife that: “It is a bang. A beautiful piece of art. The first time I heard it, I realised that Team Distant is taking a different route which is quite different. I’m impressed.”