It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a presidency and chieftancy must be in want of a wife—but not if she’s fat. Such, at least, is the case with Sir Ian Khama, president of Botswana. Unmarried at 57 and described by ABC News as “one of Africa’s most eligible bachelors,” Khama has announced that, although he is still too busy running Botswana to search for a wife, he will assign his presidential aides to find him a suitable match. His main criteria, he said, was that she be “tall, slim and beautiful.”
Then, pointing at the Assistant Minister of Local Government, Botlhogile Tshreletso, he said, “I don’t want one like this one. She may fail to pass through the door, breaking furniture with her heavy weight, and even break the vehicles shock absorbers.”
The assembled politicians, including Tshreletso, apparently laughed, although critics are now calling for Khama to apologise. According to ABC, the remark is seen as particularly offensive “in a country known for short, heavy set women.”
If this is the case, then Khama’s insulting joke takes on an interesting historical dimension, recalling the international racial scandal that surrounded his parents’ marriage. Ian’s father, Seretse Khama, was eventually elected the first president of Botswana—but only after he was barred from chieftaincy and exiled from what was then the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland for marrying a white English woman, Ruth Williams. Their marriage was opposed not only be the British but, far more strenuously, by the established forces of Motswana society, led by Seretse’s uncle, the chief regent Tshekedi Khama. One of the reasons they gave for opposing Seretse’s marriage to a white woman was that their mixed race children would look down on their people as ‘kaffirs’.
Is it possible that we hear an echo of this fear in Ian Khama’s dismissive joke? ABC’s reportage certainly writes racial element into the story. For, while readers might be shocked by Khama’s crassness and his personal attack on a member of his government, they would not necessarily be surprised by his preference for “tall, slim” women. The report, however, racialises these characteristics, reads them as code for “not a local woman, not a Motswana woman.”
Interestingly, Ian Khama’s grandfather, Sekgoma Khama, was also resistant to marriage and, like his son, fell in love with a woman of another race. In Sekgoma’s case, this woman was Masarwa, also known as San or “Bushmen.” The nomadic Masarwa, who are lighter skinned, were dispossessed and enslaved by the Motswana. Sekgoma’s father, Khama the Great, forbade him from marrying his Masarwa lover, but rumours persisted that Seretse was half Masarwa (apparently you could tell because he had a big bottom).
Racism against the Masarwa was still an active and vicious element of Botswana society in the 1970s, as documented by the novelist Bessie Head. Head, a South African refugee who lived in Botswana, was herself half black and half white, like the president Seretse Khama’s children. Despite this, Head’s colour led people to identify her as a Masarwa—as “a Bushman dog.” Head treats this racism in her novel Maru, which describes the marriage of a Batswana chief to a Masarwa teacher.
Head addresses it from another angle in her novel A Question of Power, which tells the story of a mixed-race refugee’s schizophrenic breakdown, during which she is tormented by hallucinatory visions exploring race, sex and politics. This novel is a strongly autobiographical account of Head’s own schizophrenia, which involved obscene and frightening delusions about president Seretse Khama. A crisis came when she publicly accused Khama of incest and murder. Although Head obviously changed and adjusted her own delusions when writing A Question of Power—in part to protect herself from libel—it seems likely that Seretse’s role corresponds at least in part to the character Sello, a wealthy local leader who becomes, in her vision, an African nationalist in a brown suit (much like the one Seretse Khama wears on brown-inked banknotes and stamps). In this evil Brown Suited incarnation, Sello marries Medusa, a woman who is remarkably “tall, slim and beautiful.” Medusa is a poisonous racist, a xenophobic proponent of African Nationalism who marks the ‘coloured’ Elizabeth as hideously other—and yet, with her white mini-dress and long, flowing waist-length hair, Medusa herself is clearly not uncomplicatedly ‘local’. Medusa attacks Elizabeth for not being black enough, for not being woman enough—and for being too fat. Elizabeth is also marked out by not being married, and there is also a suggestion that she may be homosexual (as, indeed, a Huffington Post commenter suggested Ian Khama might be).
In Ian Khama’s crude joke, we can trace a whole tangle of historical and cultural threads. There is the recurrent anxiety over a Khama’s failure to marry or marry appropriately. And appropriateness here implies racial lines. There is his grandfather marrying too late, courting a ‘bushman dog’. His father, rumoured to be mixed race himself, marrying a white woman. There are the worries that their children, including Ian Khama, would see themselves as racially superior—yet the same racial mix was widely regarded as being racially inferior, too like the Masarwa. There may also be a whisper of homosexuality (or perhaps asexuality). And all this, of course, doesn’t even begin to touch on fat politics, or on differing cultural standards of beauty and the ways in which these are complicated by globalisation.