A warm invitation for a new friend

The Commonwealth’s Very Special Guest turned to his aide. He had travelled to Harare as invited – but what should he do now? A puzzled assistant cautiously ran her eye over the summit’s official programme. There seemed to be a banquet that night – hosted by the Queen.

And so it was, some hours later, that the president of the African National Congress emerged from a rather battered private car on the steps of the State Guest House in Harare. Resplendent in one of his colourful, open-necked shirts, Nelson Mandela strode purposively towards the Commonwealth’s most exclusive of social events – The Queen’s Banquet for Heads of Government. Little over a year before, he had shown similar determination in walking through the gates of Victor-Verster prison in Paarl – a free man after 27 years in jail. Only a few years before that, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had described the ANC as a “typical terrorist organisation”. Now, with Mandela as its centre, South Africa was poised for momentous change.

The arrival of Mandela outside the banquet caused consternation among palace officials. Charles Anson, the Queen’s press secretary, aghast that a social and political disaster loomed, raced up the backstairs as Mandela made more measured progress up the main staircase. Finding a colleague, Anson blurted out his news: “Mandela is here – you have to find him a place.” Not possible, came the reply. No room; against protocol – and, anyway, the heads are about to sit down. Turning on his heel, Anson plunged into the reception, found the Queen’s private secretary, Sir Robert Fellowes, and the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Chief Emeka Anyaoku. Together they sought out the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh. The Queen’s response was immediate. Of course, Mr Mandela must come to dinner, directing that he should be seated next to her – in the place of honour.

Four years later, Mandela was able to return the compliment. After the elections of 1994, he had become the president of a new, non-racial South Africa. At his invitation, the Queen and Prince Philip paid a state visit to South Africa. It was the first time the Queen had set foot in the country since 1947. Years later, Mandela spoke warmly of “my friend Elizabeth” – a friendship first kindled over dinner in Harare.


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