King’s first state visit casts him in different light to late Queen

President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, King Charles III and Camilla, Queen Consort during the State Banquet at Buckingham Palace - Chris Jackson
President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, King Charles III and Camilla, Queen Consort during the State Banquet at Buckingham Palace - Chris Jackson

In an era of “firsts”, this would have been one of the more momentous for the new King.

“My wife and I are delighted to welcome you to Buckingham Palace,” he told the visiting South African president, as he took on the most significant of diplomatic duties from his mother in the first state visit of his reign.

In a glowing speech ahead of a Buckingham Palace banquet paying tribute to both the late Queen Elizabeth II and her friendship with Nelson Mandela, he called the evening “particularly moving and special” for celebrating a country which has "always been part of my life”.

Thanks to his mother’s famous pledge to dedicate her life to service on her 21st birthday in South Africa, he said, it gave her and now him “great pleasure” to host a succession of its presidents.

Addressing President Ramaphosa, who beamed at points throughout, the King told him: “During one of my own visits to South Africa, in 1997, President Mandela told me that he had conferred on my mother a special name – Motlalepula, meaning “to come with rain”.

“I have been reassured that this was a mark of the particular affection President Mandela felt for the Queen... rather than a remark on the British habit of taking our weather with us.”

The King opened his speech with six words of greeting, representing nine languages used in South Africa including the president’s own, Venda.

Princess of Wales - Chris Jackson
Princess of Wales - Chris Jackson

In a speech which called for the UK and South Africa to work together to tackle “some of the greatest challenges of our times”, he also moved to acknowledge the darker side of a relationship which “goes back centuries”.

“While there are elements of that history which provoke profound sorrow, it is essential that we seek to understand them,” he said.

“As I said to Commonwealth leaders earlier this year, we must acknowledge the wrongs which have shaped our past if we are to unlock the power of our common future.”

For the royals, the evening was not just a diplomatic duty but a family affair allowing them to pay visual tribute to those they have lost.

In a warm reciprocal speech, Cyril Ramaphosa spoke to the new generation of Royal family-South African relationship, telling the King: “I wish to compliment you personally on your visionary leadership on environmental issues over many years. Some of your messages over the years [now] sound very prophetic.”

The Queen Consort wore a sapphire and diamond tiara once belonging to the late Queen for the first time, with matching necklace and bracelet.

The Princess of Wales, in a white Jenny Packham gown, wore a bracelet belonging to Elizabeth II and earrings from her late mother-in-law as well as the Lover’s Knot Tiara she wears regularly.

Earlier in the day, she paid tribute to the former Princess of Wales in pinning the Prince of Wales Feathers Pendant as a brooch, as Diana did so often while she was in the role.

The Queen Consort and Princess both wore their Family Orders, bestowed on them by Elizabeth II during her reign, pinned to their dresses.

banquet - PA
banquet - PA

The King hosted 170 guests in the ballroom of Buckingham Palace, for a menu including grilled brill, Windsor pheasant and iced vanilla parfait with caramelised apples with a choice of six wines and port.

More than 1,000 glasses, 100 candles, and 23 large arrangements of flowers from the palace gardens adorned horseshoe-shaped tables, with bowls of pears, grapes, dates and pineapple amid small glass vases of red and pink-hued blooms.

The King and Queen Consort made a personal visit to inspect the tables earlier in the evening, with staff still vacuuming the carpet and checking the 46cm measurement between place settings with an hour to spare before guests arrived.

The banquet was the climax of the first day of the South African state visit, the first hosted by the King since he acceded to the throne in September.

At its heart, the day had all the elements of the tried-and-tested incoming state visit.

An official greeting from the Prince and Princess of Wales, newly elevated into the position King Charles had been accustomed to while his mother was alive; the pomp and pageantry of the ceremonial welcome at Horse Guards Parade.

guards - REUTERS
guards - REUTERS

Later, via the polished gold of the state coaches, a lunch at Buckingham Palace and a viewing of items from the Royal Collection Trust connected to South Africa.

The president’s visit to Westminster Abbey and the Palace of Westminster ticked the remaining boxes for the State Visit diary, before the banquet was thrown in his honour.

The schedule was drafted under Queen Elizabeth II, with the new King seeing no reason to change it.

But while the arrangements were the same, the impression could not have been more different.

In the late Queen’s day, she was the undisputed solo star of the show. Visiting presidents approached her with awe, the opportunity to meet the global leader they invariably described as a mother or grandmother-figure always the crown jewel of their trip to Britain.

As the King and President Ramaphosa greeted one another as friends, they seemed an equal meeting of minds.

Both in their 70s, of similar height, and wearing coats cut to the same length, they fell into an easy rhythm and walked in step as they inspected the Guard of Honour on Horse Guards Parade.

Later, they barely paused for breath as they chatted their way through the formalities in front of the cameras, President Ramaphosa’s ready laugh echoing the King’s own.

The first day of the visit put the new Royal family hierarchy on full show.

Princess of Wales
Princess of Wales

The Prince and Princess of Wales, wearing a pendant of feathers worn by previous holders of the title including her late mother-in-law Diana, were deployed to the Corinthia Hotel, where President Ramaphosa and his entourage were staying after Buckingham Palace bedrooms were ruled out during the current refurbishment.

A formal photograph was followed by a short car journey to Horse Guards Parade, where the King and Queen Consort were in situ on a dais, under the flags of the UK and South Africa.

There, they were greeted with the sight of more than 1,000 soldiers and 230 horses from the Foot Guards from Number 7 Company The Coldstream Guards, the Sovereign’s Escort of the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment, its mounted band, and the Band of the Welsh Guards which played music from a rendition of Spandau Ballet’s Gold to the national anthems.

Altogether calmer affair

If President Donald Trump’s state visit in 2019, the last before the Covid-19 pandemic brought an end to them in the late Queen’s reign, was marked by a muddle over who walked where for an inspection of the guards, Tuesday's was an altogether calmer affair.

After the ceremony, the King, Queen Consort and President Ramaphosa climbed into the Irish State Coach. South Africa’s First Lady did not make the trip, said to be recovering from eye surgery.

The Prince and Princess of Wales were joined in the Australian State Coach by Dr Naledi Pandor, the South African Minister of International Relations.

The State Carriage - Carl Court/Getty Pool
The State Carriage - Carl Court/Getty Pool

At Buckingham Palace, the South African visitors had lunch with their royal hosts, going on a little longer than planned in what will be taken as a sign of its success.

In the palace’s Picture Gallery afterwards, the Royal Collection Trust put on a display of artefacts showing previous visits between Britain and South Africa, from the young Princess Elizabeth’s first overseas tour there to the King posing there with the Spice Girls in 1997.

President Ramaphosa picked up a photograph of the late Queen side by side with Nelson Mandela at the state banquet in the Palace in 1996, saying “this lovely picture” and the King replying: “You were lucky to have known both.”

Among the items was a copy of the speech the late Queen delivered on her 21st birthday in Cape Town, and a handwritten letter from her to Mandela telling him “welcome back” to the Commonwealth.

As de facto tour guide of a group including the Waleses, Earl and Countess of Wessex, and the South African delegation, the King highlighted a chess set Mandela gave to the Duke of Edinburgh in 1996, declaring it “rather wonderful”.