President Zuma’s state visit to Great Britain was his first since taking up office in May 2009. For all concerned it was an important occasion, one which did not, however, go as smoothly as was hoped. Much of the tension was caused by reports in the British press criticising the president, which provoked an angry response from South Africa. In the background lay the fact that the two nations have not always had a happy relationship, which dates back to the British colonial era. In more recent decades, with the struggle against apartheid and South Africa’s emergence as a democracy, relations are much improved. But politics is always a controversial area and President Zuma is a controversial politician. All of this conspired to complicate the Queen’s task of playing host to South Africa’s third post-apartheid president. The visit began in customary ceremonial style as the Queen formally greeted President Zuma on Horse Guards Parade, where the President reviewed a guard of honour with the Duke of Edinburgh. For the former African National Congress fighter and communist all this pageantry might have been a rather ironic experience, but he would have been pleased to see South African flags being waved from amongst the watching crowds. The importance of the visit was further illustrated by PM Gordon Brown, who skipped Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons to welcome President Zuma. After a private lunch President Zuma presented the Queen with a chess set, which caused a little embarrassment as his predecessor, Nelson Mandela, had given a similar gift to the Duke of Edinburgh years before. President Zuma also gave the monarch an Ardmore ceramic ornamental dish featuring cheetah and palm decorations. In return, Zuma received a mounted bronze stag and a 1930s book called ‘Hunting And Stalking Deer’ by Lionel Edwards and Harold Frank Wallace. And, finally, honourary titles were exchanged: The Queen made President Zuma an honourary ‘Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath’, and in return Her Majesty was given the ‘Order of the Companions of O.R. Tambo Gold Class’ – one of South Africa’s highest national honours, given to foreign heads of state and government for friendship shown.
Nothing seriously untoward, but the tensions had actually begun prior to President Zuma’s arrival. The British media had made some highly critical comments in particular about his polygamous lifestyle. President Zuma has been married five times and arrived for the state visit with his latest wife, Thobeka Madiba Zuma. Although polygamy is recognised by South African civil law, this did not mean that some of the British press modulated their opinions very much. Which of his three current wives would the President bring with him and how many would Buckingham Palace allow! And it was not just the British media who set about caricaturing President Zuma, who had responded angrily in an interview, saying: “When the British came to our country they said everything we did was barbaric, was wrong, inferior in whatever way. Bear in mind that I’m a freedom fighter and I fought to free myself, also for my culture to be respected . . . I have not looked down upon the culture of anyone, and no-one has been given an authority to judge others. The British have done that before, as they colonised us, and they continue to do this, and it’s an unfortunate thing.” But no one wanted this to spill over into the state visit and a presidential spokesman said: “The comments he made were not aimed at the British public in general but at certain sections of the media which have lambasted him for what he considers to be his culture.” Protocol is always useful to smooth the path of diplomacy and having the Queen and the Royal Family as your hosts is the ideal way to keep the rough and tumble of politics at arms length.
After lunch the Earl of Wessex called on the President in his suite at Buckingham Palace for talks on ‘The Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award Scheme’ and ‘The President’s Award for Youth Empowerment’. Later in the day Mr. and Mrs. Zuma visited Westminster Abbey to lay a wreath at the grave of the unknown warrior, followed by a visit to the north London house of Oliver Tambo, one of the ANC’s founders, and to plant a tree at the ‘Oliver Tambo Memorial’ at the Albert Road Recreation Ground. Completing a busy schedule, the President returned to Buckingham Palace to receive calls from Conservative Party leader David Cameron, leader of Her Majesty’s opposition; and Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats. The evening was set aside for the State Banquet, the opportunity for the Monarch and the President to strengthen bilateral relations. The Queen spoke of her first memories of South Africa from her visit in 1947 and her return after the fall of apartheid: “The extraordinary beauty of the country and the vibrancy and diversity of its culture made a powerful impression upon me then. You can imagine how vivid the contrast between that visit and my next were, nearly half a century later. When Prince Philip and I visited South Africa in 1995, we could see for ourselves how much the country had changed. Just one year after the momentous elections which had brought President Mandela to power, a new atmosphere of self-confidence and positive hopes for the future was already very apparent.” Her Majesty also spoke warmly about South Africa’s achievements over the last two decades: “In the period since, by developing its democratic institutions, South Africa has been able to tackle many of its internal challenges. And on the international stage, having taken a seat on the Security Council of the United Nations and helped to bring peace to Burundi, South Africa has been developing a reputation for asserting its influence wisely.” President Zuma’s speech was no less appreciative of his British hosts and the only murmurs of discontent came when he dared mention that he was a supporter of Liverpool FC, a red rag to a London audience! If President Zuma’s visit to the UK had been overshadowed slightly by his battles with his critics, the machinery of diplomacy and the Queen’s experience ensured that it all ended on a positive note. (Royalty Magazine Vol. 21/10)