HC Deb 29 April 1952 vol 499 cc1228-32
Mr. Speaker

The right hon. Member for Smethwick (Mr. Gordon Walker) obtained my permission quite recently to ask a Private Notice Question of the Under-Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations. Since then I have found that the hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes) had given notice of a Question on the same subject. I was not aware of that when I agreed to the Question. I merely mention the fact so that this shall not be taken as a precedent.

Mr. Gordon Walker

(by Private Notice) asked the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations whether he has any statement to make on the outcome of the discussions with the Bamangwato representatives at present in this country.

The Under-Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations (Mr. John Foster)

My noble Friend the Secretary of State has had two meetings with the members of the Bamangwato tribe who are in this country. At the first meeting he listened to all that they had to say. He gave them the fullest facilities, and all six spoke at length. They also delivered to him a memorandum of their views. They claimed to represent the tribe and argued that the tribe as a whole strongly desired the appointment of Seretse Khama as chief and was prepared to accept his wife. They asked my noble Friend to reconsider Her Majesty's Government's decision that Seretse Khama could not be recognised as chief. They added that, if my noble Friend could not see his way to alter this decision, they would welcome a further statement of the reasons which had led Her Majesty's Government to make it.

At the second meeting my noble Friend informed them that he saw no reason for alteration of Her Majesty's Government's decision about Seretse Khama, which was firm and final. My noble Friend and his predecessor had been fully aware, before the decision was reached, of the views which they had expressed and the delegation had added nothing to the information already at their disposal. My noble Friend pointed out that opinion in the tribe had changed in the past and might do so again. He emphasised, what is so often overlooked, that at the first kgotla, in November, 1948, a large majority of the tribe showed a very strong aversion to acceptance of Seretse Khama's marriage, on the grounds that it constituted a flagrant breach of tribal custom. A division of opinion in the tribe clearly existed, which was likely to be intensified in the future over the succession.

Moreover, as had been stated in the White Paper of 1950 (Cmd. 7913), the view of the tribe, or of a majority of the tribe, was only one of the factors which Her Majesty's Government had to take into account. Under Bechuanaland law the final decision rested clearly and specifically with the Government, which would be failing in its responsibilities if it did not consider what was best in the ultimate interests of the tribe and the Protectorate. The reasons for the Government's decision about Seretse Khama were already fully set out in published documents, namely the White Paper of 1950 (Cmd. 7913), the statement made in this House and in another place on 27th March, 1952, and speeches in the debate in another place on 31st March, of which my noble Friend gave them copies to study and to take back with them for the information of those whom they claimed to represent.

My noble Friend pointed out that their claim to represent the tribe was not unchallenged. Quite recently, for example, persons of high standing in the tribe had seen fit to petition his predecessor contesting their right to speak for the tribe. Finally, he emphasised Her Majesty's Government's determination to secure settled conditions in the Reserve, to reunite the tribe and to restore the chieftainship in the person of some other and more suitable candidate who was acceptable both to the tribe and to the Government. The sooner the tribe's co-operation over this was secured, the sooner would happiness and progress—social, economic and political—be achieved in the Reserve. My noble Friend counselled them, therefore, to abide loyally by the Government's decisions.

Mr. Gordon Walker

Is not the value of this statement wholly vitiated by the way in which the Secretary of State made it clear beforehand that he regarded this meeting as a pure formality, indeed a nuisance, and that he had completely made up his mind before he met those who came over from the tribe?

Mr. Foster

I cannot accept any one of the facts stated by the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Clement Davies

May I ask the hon. and learned Gentleman whether or not these people represent the full views of the tribe, or is he satisfied that they represent a very large section of the views of the tribe, and are not the views of the tribe of paramount importance in a question of this kind?

Mr. Foster

I think it can be said that they represent a majority of the tribe, undoubtedly, but, as was pointed out in the debates, the views of the majority of the tribe are not the paramount reason for this decision. The Government are the trustees for this tribe and they have to do what in their opinion is best for the interests of the tribe.

Mr. Hector Hughes

Does the Minister not agree that in this matter the Government are taking a narrow and, especially in view of his last answer, an undemocratic line in this matter—a line which may be prejudicial to the prestige and influence of this country not only in Bechuanaland but all over coloured Africa?

Mr. Foster

No, I do not agree.

Mr. R. W. Sorensen

May I ask the hon. and learned Gentleman whether the same principle was adopted in regard to the return of Tshekedi Khama, and does this mean that Seretse Khama, even as a private citizen, will never be allowed to go back to his native country?

Mr. Foster

It might well be said that the majority of the tribe did not want Tshekedi to go back under the terms he wanted, but we thought it was in the best interests of the tribe that he should, and I understood most right hon. and hon. Members on the other side of the House agreed with that decision. It is not the decision of Her Majesty's Government that Seretse Khama should be excluded for ever. When a new chief has been established, and if Seretse Khama is willing to enter into a similar undertaking to that of Tshekedi, then we will consider his returning to the Reserve.

Mr. Julian Snow

Can the hon. and learned Gentleman say yet whether there is any truth in the report in "The Times" last week that his noble Friend the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations is to receive a visit from the Primate of all England on this matter?

Mr. Foster

No, I cannot.

Mr. T. Driberg

Would the hon. and learned Gentleman agree that the original difference of opinion in the tribe, on which he laid stress, is really no longer relevant since, as he himself admits, the majority now accept this marriage, especially since the visit to the tribe of Seretse Khama and his wife? Also, is he now satisfied that it is not against native law and custom for a chief of that tribe to marry without previous consultation?

Mr. Foster

No, Sir. My noble Friend regards it as extremely relevant that the first two kgotlas were decisively against the marriage of Seretse. What I understand the hon. Gentleman is arguing is that the delegation represented that there was no tribal custom which required consultation by a chief of the tribe with regard to marriage. The statements made by the delegation were not accurate about tribal custom on that point. The only two instances they gave were the marriage of Khama III and of Tshekedi.

In the case of the marriage of Khama III it was marriage with his fourth wife, not with his principal wife, and at a time when he already had an heir. Therefore, there was no tribal custom shown by that—practically the opposite—but that when the chief wants to marry a principal wife, he has to consult the tribe. With regard to Tshekedi, the position was that he was not the chief and not first in the line of succession. So the other instance given by the delegation also did not prove the contention they made. In addition, the Administration has informed us from South Africa that there is no recorded instance of a chief, in the case of a principal wife who would give birth to an heir in due time, ever having married without consulting the tribe.

Mrs. Eirene White

As the hon. and learned Gentleman admitted that the delegation now in this country represents the majority of the tribe and is, therefore, not just an assemblage of private persons, will he see that it is made possible for part of their expenses at least to be defrayed out of the tribal treasury? We understand that to put the feelings of their people directly to the Secretary of State, some of the members of the delegation have had to pledge their private property. As they have come as public representatives, surely the hon. and learned Gentleman would agree that they should be able to use tribal funds?

Mr. Foster

I think one could go even further than the hon. Lady. My noble Friend is prepared to consider payment of their air passages not out of tribal funds but out of United Kingdom funds.

Mr. Driberg

May I inform the hon. and learned Gentleman that we shall be arguing this matter further tomorrow night on the Adjournment?