Mar 02


The ‘Zulu chief’ who wasn’t

While doing the research for my obituary of Peggy Appiah (nee Cripps), I had occasion to remember the early, happy days of Ghana’s independence in 1957, when Peggy’s husband, Joe Appiah, was one of the brightest sparks in the Parliament of newly-independent Ghana.

Joe, a handsome man with large eyes and a goatee beard, always turned up for Parliament in Ghanaian native cloth, with a chain around his neck. This made him stand out amongst the new rulers, most of whom preferred the Assembly’s stupid uniform – the formal Western suit – which was as uncomfortable in the humid heat of Ghana as one could wish. The only reason why they wore suits was that the British members of the Legislative Council of old had dressed like that. Indeed, the Speaker of the new Assembly, Mr EC Quist, was clad in robes exactly patterned upon those of the speaker of the British House of Commons.

As a young reporter for the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation, my pass enabled me to go to the inaccessible areas of Parliament House, and I once caught sight, briefly, of Mr Speaker struggling to get into his gear – silk stockings shining, patent leather shoes and a horse-hair wig – when his door was opened by an attendant as I was passing by. I thought it was hilarious. The scene in our High Court was even more bizarre: judges in thick red robes, wearing wigs, and lawyers in thick black robes, wearing wigs.

There was no air-conditioning in those days, and as ceiling fans whirred to try and bring some relief into the rooms, the poor ‘Learned Friends’ and the ‘Lordshits’ they fawned upon publicly (but insulted privately) sweated and sweated and sweated. It took about two decades for them to summon the courage to change the uniforms, both in Parliament and the courts. Even today, some lawyers prefer to put on their wig and gown to go to court: so strong is the allure of the mystification that the lawyer’s attire apparently enables them to pull off before the eyes of ordinary mortals that they would rather be wet all over than abandon a tradition evolved no doubt to shelter British lawyers from the biting winds of winter.

But back to Joe Appiah. He had an impish sense of humour, which he summoned to make fun of Krobo Edusei, Prime Minister Nkrumah’s ebullient minister of the interior. Mr Edusei had brought Dr Emil Savundra – who was later to steal thousands of pounds from the customers of his British motor insurance company, Fire, Auto and Marine Insurance. The crash of the company left 400,000 motorists without insurance cover. He was sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment and fined £50,000 in 1968.

In the late 1950s, Mr Edusei introduced Dr Savundra as an industrialist who wanted to set up businesses in Ghana in partnership with Ghanaians and even the government. But somehow Joe Appiah and others in the Ghanaian opposition got to know that although Savundra called himself ‘Dr’, he did not have a doctorate of any sort, and that the capital he was supposed to bring to Ghana did not exist.

They chased Savundra out of Ghana with their mockery and after that, whenever Krobo Edusei entered Parliament House, he was greeted with a shout of ‘SAVU!’ by Joe Appiah, whereupon the opposition benches would yell back ‘SAVUNDRA!’ Everyone then collapsed with laughter. This spirit of mirth did not last long in the Assembly, as Dr Kwame Nkrumah soon introduced a Preventive Detention Act under which Joe Appiah and many of his parliamentary colleagues were detained for five years without trial.

In 1977, I ran into Joe Appiah in Paris, where the late General Kutu Acheampong, then ruler of Ghana, had sent him on a mission to win support for Acheampong’s idea of ‘union government’ between the military and civilians. Joe was in very good form, and over a drink, he told this story: whilst dating his wife, Peggy in the early 1950’s, Joe used to go to Speaker’s Corner, in Hyde Park, London, to harangue Britain for its unwillingness to grant independence to its colonies in Africa. He always wore his Ghanaian cloth (which is worn at the shoulder, somewhat like a Roman toga) when he went to mount his ‘soap box’ and speak – if the weather permitted.

One day, he was in full flow when a team from the Daily Express, then a notorious crusader for the continuation of imperial rule over the British colonies, arrived. When its reporter heard what Joe was saying about the Empire, he took down some notes and had Joe photographed. The next day, Joe was surprised to see in the Express, a picture of himself under the banner headline, ‘BLANKET-CLAD ZULU CHIEF BERATES EMPIRE’. Now, the Ghanaian cloth is not a woollen ‘blanket’ (the heat and humidity would kill anyone who wore one in the sunshine!) but apart from the inaccuracy, Joe was also annoyed by what he considered to be the racist undertones of the article. To the Daily Express, Joe thought, the term ‘Zulu chief’ was a code term for ‘uncivilised native’.

So Joe arranged for the editor of the paper to be invited to dinner at the home of his wife-to-be’s father, Sir Stafford Cripps, former Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons. Joe turned up at the dinner in his best Moss Brothers lawyer’s outfit, and had a very ‘erudite conversation’ with the editor about – the law of libel!

Then, on cue, someone produced the offending article in the Daily Express. Pointing to the splash with the ‘Zulu chief’ headline, he asked the editor: ‘I say! Doesn’t that ‘Zulu chief’ bear a striking resemblance to someone at this table?’ Whereupon the entire room erupted into boisterous laughter. The editor looked at the picture, and then looked round, and the penny dropped. Said Joe: “When he realised it was me, he blushed like red ink’. I can still see Joe’s big eyes twinkling with pleasure at the memory of the trick played on the editor.

Joe Appiah died in 1990. With him died an era in Ghana, when politics could be fun as well as serious business. Joe’s marriage to Peggy Cripps attracted notice because in those days there was an unwritten rule: black men must not marry or make love to white women. If you have read EM Foster’s A Passage To India, you will understand the taboos that were attached to contacts between English women and ‘colonial peoples’. (Actually, the prejudice was in existence even in Shakespeare’s day, which was well before the British empire had sprouted its teeth. Who can forget Othello and the unbearable tensions that the mere union of a black man and a white woman caused in their society, leading eventually to the destruction of both the man and the woman?)

Of course, many people disregarded the race barrier to sex between people of different colours, but those who drove a coach and horses through the hypocrisy of the British empire paid a heavy price. In the colonies, they were usually ostracised by the local ‘establishment’. In the United Kingdom, they sometimes had to endure name-calling, or attacks in the streets, or on their homes. Often, these ‘low-profile’ incidents did not attract the attention of the media.

However, in 1948, marriage between the races became a major story in Britain. A prince of Bechuanaland (now Botswana) called Seretse Khama, a graduate of Oxford University’s Balliol College who was in the process of qualifying as a lawyer at the prestigious Inner Temple while he waited to be proclaimed king, married a white woman called Ruth Williams. If and when Seretse Khama returned home to Bechuanaland, Ruth would become Queen of his people.

Now, in neighbouring South Africa, the Nationalist Party had just been voted into power, on a platform of total separation of the races, or apartheid. Sex between the races was made punishable by imprisonment, and to have a Bechuanaland King carrying on a high-profile interracial marriage across the border seemed positively subversive to the apartheid practitioners.

In the post-war world South Africa’s gold exports contributed enormously to the foreign exchange reserves of the ‘Sterling Area’, and using this clout the South Africans exerted enormous pressure on Britain not to allow Seretse Khama to take his white bride home. It was one of the most disgraceful episodes in British imperial history. The outcry over the Khamas had hardly died down when Peggy Cripps and Joe Appiah were also married. The two marriages inspired a Hollywood scriptwriter living in England, William Rose, to write a script for a producer/director called Stanley Kramer to make the famous film that was one of the first to explore sexual relations between black and white: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.


Permanent link to this article: