The recent release of ‘A United Kingdom’, a film about the inspiring true story of Sir Seretse Khama, the first president of Botswana, and his British-born wife, Ruth, got us thinking about Oxfam’s links with the country.
Director Amma Asante’s film opened the BFI London Film Festival in October, and tells how Khama, who was chief-in-waiting of the Bamangwato people of Bechuanaland (later Botswana), met Ruth Williams, an office clerk, while studying law in London in the 1940s. Despite opposition to their interracial marriage from the British Government, apartheid South Africa, and initially, tribal elders in Bechuanaland, Khama went on to to be the democratically-elected premier of his country, overseeing its independence in 1966, and a long period of economic growth and development.
In 1961, Oxfam took a significant leap forward with the appointment of T.F. (‘Jimmy’) Betts, ex-colonial servant and brother of the Labour politician, Barbara Castle, as its first resident ‘Field Director’, tasked with managing its development programme in Southern Africa. Previously, local voluntary agencies were entrusted to oversee the use of Oxfam funds, supported by occasional visits from Oxford staff. In 1962, one of Oxfam’s largest grants to that date – £90,000 – was allocated to work in the three British High Commission Territories of Bechuanaland (Botswana from independence in 1966), Basutoland (Lesotho from 1966), and Swaziland. The programme in Bechuanaland included repair work on water catchment dams to alleviate the effects of drought, training of farmers in modern techniques, and other agricultural initiatives. Over the course of the 1960s, Oxfam invested around £500,000 in the country, nearing £1 per head of population. Khama’s regard for Oxfam and vice versa is revealed in two letters that we are currently cataloguing. The first, dated 24 June 1974, by Oxfam’s Director, Leslie Kirkley, informs Khama that after over ten years of collaboration, Oxfam feels that the time has come for it to concentrate its efforts “in other parts of the world where the problems are more intractable”. Kirkley praises the progress and achievements made by Botswana and Khama’s “concerned and enlightened leadership”. He also comments on the importance that the work in Botswana has had for Oxfam:
“Botswana has, and will continue to have, a special significance for Oxfam, as it was there that we began to practise our role as a long-term development agency and the experience gained has been of invaluable help to us as we have extended our activities to other parts of the world and constantly adjusted our thinking and policies over the years.”
Khama’s reply, dated 7 August 1974, expresses thanks to Oxfam for its work in Botswana, undertaken during the course of a “happy and fruitful” relationship, noting:
“We shall always be extremely grateful to Oxfam for the assistance which you have been giving us over the years. We have by no means solved all of our problems, but we have at least made significant progress in a number of fields, and much of the credit for this must go to Oxfam.”
Three photographs recently donated to the archive show the Khamas and Jimmy Betts in 1964, visiting a community centre in Serowe, Bechuanaland, built with Oxfam’s assistance.
‘A United Kingdom’ is currently in cinemas.