As the 50th anniversary gets closer, it will become increasingly obvious that the country is without a properly equipped and staffed photographic archive and will therefore be poorly placed to locate the kind of photos that will be needed and even less equipped to interpret them.
How many have been lost? So let’s take this particular photo as a test of sorts – not least because it is an unknown, having been neither exhibited nor published.
It’s a character photo because it shows a very relaxed smiling Seretse, Ruth by his side busy taking photographs. I am taking late 1966 or 1967 as its likely date partly because the photographer has explained that this was one of several that he took when Seretse was touring the country and partly because, after Independence, I assume that it would have been an absolute priority for him to visit as many places in the country as he was able.
So what sort of clothing ensemble did this remarkable couple deem appropriate and comfortable for visiting one kgotla after another? The first obvious requirement was nothing flash, sensible walking shoes for both, a skirt and top for her with a safari suit for him, a trilby and a shooting stick anticipating today’s camping chairs, which would have come in very handy.
It is the combination of the trilby and the shooting stick - the epitome of elegance and style - which are so striking. If photos tell a story and if photos can help us gain a better understanding of our first President, this un-posed, chance photo is of exceptional value because it is the context and the time that is so hugely important.
Here is a Seretse who is clearly enjoying his contact with the locals. The fact that Ruth is at his side, as was usual, serves to remind us that theirs was a spectacularly unusual partnership – it being a societal norm that wives of the country’s senior leaders only rarely accompany their husbands on either major or even minor occasions.
It is a great pity that we have so little idea how people reacted to those never-again to-be-repeated meetings.
Here was the hugely popular, charismatic Seretse, the first time leader of what was almost a new country, arriving to tell people that everything had now changed. It must have been euphoric. But also take note.
We have all those familiar images of Mandela released from Pollsmore Prison in 1990, hand in hand with Winnie, on his way to shatter a hundred or so years of history and to make an entire country confront the ruin of its own making.
What about our own archival photos of Seretse and Ruth who, just by being together, 29 years earlier, had challenged the racists and bigots here and elsewhere in Southern Africa; always incredibly powerful images of two amazing people. It is the context that matters. Nearly 50 years on, we would do well to give thought to the impact that such (almost) routine images (here) must have made throughout tortured Southern Africa. And to what the sub-continent, not just this country, owes to those two.