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Close to Home: Remembering royal visits and leaders who served

I was 6 when the British royal family visited the (then) Union of South Africa in 1947.|

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

I was 6 when the British royal family visited the (then) Union of South Africa in 1947.

At the time we were living in Durban, a large city on the shore of the Indian Ocean. The royals — King George VI, his wife Queen Elizabeth, then-Princess Elizabeth and her sister Princess Margaret — were on a goodwill tour to thank Commonwealth countries for their support and sacrifices during World War II.

Anthony Gamley
Anthony Gamley

The visit came one year before the nationalist government came to power in South Africa, marking the onset of hard-nosed apartheid, where race determined every aspect of life. At that time, Natal, the province where Durban is located, was quintessentially British. Many who had never seen the shores of Great Britain spoke fondly of England as “home.”

The British national anthem was played at the end of every movie, concert and stage production. Audiences stood to attention until the anthem was over. But there were others — one of whom became president of South Africa under the nationalist regime — who had been imprisoned as Nazi-sympathizers during the war. Thus, emotions were raw and on open display, and the white population was divided. Much of this bitterness carried over from the British triumph over the Afrikaners in the Anglo-Boer War at the turn of the century.

In his mid-20s, my father had served “king and country” as a member of the South African Engineers’ Corps in Egypt’s Sahara Desert. At one time he was assigned to the hand-guided battery-operated mine detectors that went ahead of convoys to ensure the safety of the soldiers who followed. It was a real possibility that he might be killed had the batteries in the mine detector failed.

At 80, I still have vivid memories of certain events centering around the royal family’s 1947 visit.

It was in Cape Town, on South Africa’s southwestern coastline, that Princess Elizabeth turned 21 and made her famous speech pledging that her whole life, “whether it be long or short,” would be devoted to the service of the British people. She kept that promise for the remarkable 70 years of her reign.

Britain's Princess Elizabeth prepares to make a 21st birthday speech from Cape Town, South Africa. (Associated Press)
Britain's Princess Elizabeth prepares to make a 21st birthday speech from Cape Town, South Africa. (Associated Press)

A couple of memories stand out clearly from the royals’ sojourn in Durban.

One Saturday morning, a formal reception had been given for them in City Hall. My family and I were among a large crowd across from the City Hall entrance. Like Zacchaeus in the Bible, a man in the crowd had climbed a tree to get a better view. This tree had a curved trunk, making it an ideal perch.

All eyes were riveted on the doors, awaiting the appearance of the royal party. Dad was intent on seeing the man for whom he had sworn an oath to give his life, if need be. At the moment when the doors opened and the king and queen appeared in full regalia, the man up the tree slipped and fell with a thud, breaking his arm.

My father admitted to mixed emotions — torn between catching a glimpse of the king, queen and princesses or helping the fallen victim. Being a person of honor, I fancy that Dad helped the victim.

Later that day, the royals made their way to King’s House up on the hill — a large and lovely home with stunning views of Durban Bay. My father was curious by nature and suggested that we go “see what we could see.”

On driving around the back of the house, we were amazed to see the king playing tennis. We did not know who his partner was. A lone “bobby” was the king’s only security. How things have changed.

My father stopped the car, we got out, kept a discreet distance, had a few friendly words with the solo police officer and went home. We did not meet the king but were blown away by being this close to him after having been the massive crowd earlier that the day. My father’s curiosity had been satisfied in a most unexpected way.

King George VI was, of course, an accomplished tennis player, having entered (and lost) a game of doubles at Wimbledon in 1926, the year his elder daughter, Princess Elizabeth, was born.

South Africa left the Commonwealth in 1961, and Queen Elizabeth II did not return until 1995 — the year following the collapse of apartheid and the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as South Africa’s first democratically elected president. It was then that we saw the queen again, at close quarters, an arm’s length away, but did not get to meet her.

The queen and President Mandela forged a unique relationship. Both are remembered for a keen sense of humor. Mandela would write to the queen, addressing her as, “Dear Elizabeth.” His family and advisers told him that this was not protocol. “She is the queen and should be addressed as, ‘Your Majesty,’” they said. Mandela would reply, “But she calls me Nelson, so I call her Elizabeth.”

Like every good person, Elizabeth had her detractors — in South Africa and elsewhere — blinkered, misguided radicals who see only their own point of view. But she rose above their criticism and steadfastly pursued the promise she’d made on her 21st birthday in Cape Town.

At Queen Elizabeth’s funeral service on Monday, the archbishop of Canterbury made pointed reference to two kinds of people in all walks of life: those who serve and will be remembered, and those who are self-centered and will be forgotten.

Queen Elizabeth II and President Nelson Mandela were among those who served. May they rest in peace.

The Rev. Anthony Gamley is interim pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Ukiah.

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The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

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