December feels a lifetime away. Feeling the arctic February temperatures seemingly freeze me from the inside out, I wish I could have brought some of the African sun back with me (exchange it for some English precipitation) after my visit home. I did however bring back lots of warm memories and some fantastic gifts.
|Homesick for this|
A few weeks ago I spent a snowy Sunday in my pyjamas diving into some childhood snacks I’d stashed in my suitcase and finally watched three DVDs my parents’ had given me for Christmas. These weren’t store bought films however, or even home videos in a strict sense; these were conversions of old VHS recordings from the television of the Queen’s second visit to South Africa.
|Princess’s Margaret and Elizabeth on their first visit to South Africa in 1947|
It was 1995 and South Africa was in its first democratic year having only recently elected Nelson Mandela. Uncertainty was still in the air, but we were embracing the Rainbow Nation title bestowed by then Archbishop Desmond Tutu. A monarch visiting a previous colony as we were being reintroduced onto the international stage was an incredible endorsement and a profound occasion.
|Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu – ‘The Arch’|
The first DVD was footage of the Queen’s ship arriving at the Waterfront and her meeting Mandela to much pomp and ceremony. This was followed by her visiting Parliament and delivering a speech referencing her first visit in 1947 during which she celebrating her 21stbirthday. The second DVD was what I was most anticipating.
The next substantial chunk of the now decade’s old footage was a church service. As part of her visit, the Queen attended a special celebration at St George’s Cathedral, a beacon during the struggle against Apartheid, to commemorate a new public holiday on 21st March named Human Rights Day. The significant date honours a massacre which had occurred in Sharpeville in 1960; a peaceful crowd that gathered to protest racist pass laws were shot at by police, killing 69 and wounding 180.
|St George’s Cathedral|
St George’s Cathedral was also my parents’ church and we attended regularly as a family so were lucky enough to be able to be there for that special service alongside royalty, the president and struggle heroes which were also in our new government. The church was rigged with lights and cameras ready for a live televised broadcast, cables snaked along the ground, and there was a huge stand erected outside the entrance being used which was full of photographers. I found this loud and jostling crowd a bit intimidating, but then again I was particularly nervous that day. I had a role to play in the proceedings.
A week earlier, on my birthday in fact, I was asked if I would want to present the Queen with flowers upon her arrival at the cathedral, which I of course agreed to. Only recently did I find out I was actually named after her, which wouldn’t have done my nerves much good knowing at the time. When the day came I remember waiting just inside the church doorway, as we’d rehearsed, clutching my beautiful fynbos posy with hot clammy palms. We had another important arrival approaching us.
Gracing the doorway was the gentle yet towering presence that was Nelson Mandela. The anxiety was palpable as the man seen as the father of our new nation strolled inside with a giant smile on his face and a greeting for everyone. This man, who had spent 27 years in jail, who had such calm and grace about him instantly had a relaxing effect on those of us feeling like ‘mere mortals’ in his presence. I expected him to saunter passed us but he stopped and shook every person’s hand. It felt like a collective sigh of relief, like he was everyone’s grandad who had come home for a celebration.
|That famous smile|
He made sure he greeted every individual, including me, which I can firmly say is one of the most profound moments of my life. I remember it like an out of body experience, but I do recall being about half his size, since I had only just turned 13; and his hand reaching towards me and my moist palm shooting out awkwardly from underneath my posy, getting caught in some of the decorative ribbon draping down the front of the bunch. His joyful yet reverent voice said ‘Hello, how are you’ while he looked me directly in the eye. This moment taught me the power of such a simple gesture. For a second I was the most important person in what felt like the whole world. I didn’t even notice the cameras anymore. By the time I’d comprehended this moment it was over and I was being ushered out the door towards my duty.
|That really happened|
The frightening bank of photographers furiously snapped away as I made my way down to my designated spot along the guard of Scouts standing to attention as a car pulled up to the pavement. The next few minutes are such a blur of panic, adrenaline and disbelief. I don’t recall the Queen and Prince Philip coming towards me, but I do remember a Scout tapping me on the shoulder, accidentally startling me, so I’d turn around and a reporter asking me name and age.
I do remember that it was suddenly my cue and I stepped forward to courtesy and hand Her Majesty her flowers. At the risk of being cliché, it was definitely a surreal moment. I don’t think she said anything, if she did I didn’t hear it. I retreated back to my original position trying to grasp the sense of awe that hung in the air and be present when a voice suddenly asked me whether the flowers came from my own garden. Totally caught off guard I whipped my head to the right and saw it was Prince Philip who had asked me.
Do you know those dreams where people talk about going to school or work naked and only realise their state when they are laughed at? That’s the best comparison to how I felt in that moment. It was like the rug was pulled out and I was free-falling, in front of the world’s press. I thought my time to panic was over and I could finally breathe – but now a real life Prince had just spoken to me. I lost all my words. All of them. My response was an automatic head shake and a much more emphatic than necessary ‘no’. He continued to glide by me and I felt as if all my insides were going to fall out of me.
I started becoming quite emotional watching the old footage. The service itself included prayers and readings, but also musical performances and a sermon by Tutu. Seeing my fleeting appearances and cringing was hilarious and bizarre, but what was wonderful was recognising the faces of other regular parishioners that formed a part of the backdrop of my childhood, many of whom have since passed away. Funnier still was seeing some of my friends I’m still in touch with who sang in the choir and contemplating how young and innocent we once were.
The service also included the national anthem, a combination of the hymn Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika and the old anthem Die Stem, which at that time was a longer version than what we sing now, but I still remembered most of the extra lines and I sang along with tears streaming down my cheeks.