Memories of Mother, Mandela and the Queen

There have been a few cringy 'me and the Queen' posts since the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, and I don't wish to add to the pile, but here goes.

14 September 2022 ·   3 min read

Memories of Mother, Mandela and the Queen

At the Commonwealth Heads of Government Summit in New Zealand in 1995, I was a young, callow journalist standing in line to have an audience (literally less than a minute) with Queen Elizabeth.

I decided I would tell her how my mother lined the streets of Port Elizabeth to greet the then heir apparent on her visit to South Africa in 1947. The Royal Family had been invited by then Prime Minister Jan Smuts on a two-month tour to thank those who served in World War 2 and, of course, to bolster South Africa's relationship with the United Kingdom. The visit would contribute to his undoing by the Afrikaner nationalists who used this as evidence that he was a sellout. In 1948, he would be voted out of office by DF Malan's National Party.

My mother had served in the RAF's Women's Auxiliary Air Force, although she made a point of playing this down because she believed it revealed her age. I have the bronze cap badge — an eagle startled by something to its left, its wings intersecting with a laurel wreath beneath a crown. And I have her two medals and her discharge papers, which she kept in a chocolate tin bearing the image of Smuts, which was given to all who served. On the lid of the tin, a disembodied bronze face of Smuts says: “We rely on you and are grateful.”

Anyway, when I made it to the front of the line, I told the Queen the story of my mother on the streets in 1947 and the Queen smiled, revealing two rows of perfect milk teeth. “Tell her 'thank you',” she said. I did and my mother — almost 50 years after the event — was moved.

That particular summit was to bear Mandela's mark after news broke that the Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha had executed the writer and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who had been tried and found guilty by a “special military tribunal”. Funny how the adjective “special” has its sinister uses. Special Branch. Special Military Operation. Special Military Tribunal.

When the news broke, Mandela held an impromptu press conference, his somnolent Foreign Minister, Alfred Nzo, still wiping his eyes. If you are old enough, you will remember the Edblo mattress logo depicting the sleepy man, with his bulbous nose, long pyjamas and candle. That was more or less Alfred Nzo on that morning.

Mandela was enraged. After an unprecedented day of lobbying and against all predictions, he brought the Commonwealth around to his point of view and, following a daylong leaders' retreat in the snowy hills of New Zealand, Nigeria was suspended.

I recall breathlessly relaying the story to the Sunday Times. The time difference meant I could check my facts with the New Zealand Sunday papers, which were already on the streets.

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It was at this summit, and during his subsequent visit to London the year after, that the friendship between the Queen and Mandela flourished. Neither had time for the shenanigans of scheming politicians. Something was right or it was wrong.

I covered that visit which included dinner at the Guild Hall, where Mandela wore a black shirt with mother of pearl buttons that would have looked as good on Johnny Cash, and a concert at the Royal Albert Hall. Mandela was seated at her side in the Royal box when he succumbed to his dancing bug. Rising to his feet, he began to jive, moving his elbows backwards and forwards. The Queen rose to her feet and, although she did not dance, she allowed herself to sway from side to side ever so slightly, glancing all the while mischievously at Mandela.

To me they got along because they were preserved from a previous age by their vastly different circumstances — he by his imprisonment and she by the straitjacket of tradition. They trusted each other enough to put aside the game face of constant public duty; for once to smile from happiness and not for the cameras.

Mandela's private secretary, Zelda la Grange, told Reuters this anecdote: “We were in Buckingham Palace once… Approaching the queen, Mr Mandela had a very wicked sense of humour. So, he walked up to the Queen and when he saw her he said: 'Elizabeth, you've lost weight!' and the Queen burst out laughing.

“I think he was the only person in the world who could comment on the Queen's weight and get away with it.” Or call her Elizabeth, she might have added.

On that memorable tour, Mandela left London for Paris to attend the Bastille Day celebrations. I discovered that when diplomatic duties were done, Mandela was secretly courting Graça Machel in the evenings. But that's another story.

This article originally appeared on the Daily Maverick

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