The Last Hurrah – South Africa and the Royal Tour of 1947

by Graham Viney

The Royal Family arrived in Cape Town on 17 February 1947 and left for home on 24 April. They had travelled 7 000 km, visited more than 400 cities, towns and stop-overs, and spoken to 25 000 people.

Field Marshall Jan Smuts met them aboard the HMS Vanguard battleship and the King descended the gangplank to a 21-gun salute on Signal Hill. Queen Elizabeth, Princess Elizabeth (20) and Princess Margaret (16) followed and they were taken directly to the 14-car White Train (Palace on Wheels), their home for two months. Eight of the cars were specially made in England for the tour.

They were cheered by millions of people of all races as they travelled through the country in the White Train, with short trips in a Daimler.

The author keeps the reader in the time, place, political, major events and historical loop, brightened with detail like fairy lights. He gives dates and names and numbers cheering crowds at every place visited. He describes changes after major events, such as the Great Trek, gold and diamonds discovery, the Anglo-Boer War, World War 2, the 1930s Depression, the rise of Afrikaner Nationalism and black and Indian politicians, as well as the King opening Parliament in a dominion for the first time, and Princess Elizabeth’s 21st birthday.

The book is well researched. He acknowledges the Queen for material held in the Royal Archives at Windsor, and HRH Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia, and thanks earls, lords and ladies, many libraries and a hundred or more friends and acquaintances of the Royal Family for letters, documents, memories and other material. There are also photographs never seen before.

At the first State dinner, which included sosaties, bobotie and Mrs Ball’s Chutney, guests saw the Queen’s famous diamond tiara, pearl necklace and other priceless jewellery for the first time

There is a good sprinkling of humour and a few surprises. At a State dinner King George VI complained to Field Marshall Smuts – through a microphone left on – that he always spoke after coffee and when the waiters had left. Smuts explained to an irate King that the BBC was waiting.

Menus showed dishes crossed off by the Queen, for future omission, and they disliked melkterts.

In the Daimler the King stopped to talk to a farmer at his gate who said he had been told that if he waited he would see the Royal Family. The King said he was the King and they had a friendly chat.

De Beers invited the Princesses to headquarters to give them diamond gifts. Princess Margaret said: What about Mummy? Sir Ernest Oppenheimer had to quickly dig into his private collection. The Queen confirmed the story and showed Nicholas Oppenheimer the diamond set in a ring.

After a hot, tiring day for the Princesses in Cape Town, rugby player Nellis Bolus, with size 13 shoes, stood on the Princess’s feet while dancing with her and led her into the fender of a chimney piece. He was Ian Smith’s future foreign minister.

One surprise was the talk of Smuts’ affair (twice) and another that he made a poor political decision to give him the opportunity of being appointed Chancellor of Cambridge University.

The Royal visit had come at the time Afrikaners wanted a Boer Republic and black and Indian politicians were emerging. DF Malan, Nationalist leader, had warned of South Africa being swamped by blacks.

On 21 February the King, for the first time in a dominion, opened Parliament. To trumpeters and guns firing the Royal salute, the King and Queen, wearing her third tiara, with South African diamonds, proceeded to the throne. The King thanked South Africa for support during the War. Smuts was backed to help Britain by warning that South West Africa would be taken by the Nazis.

The Queen noticed hatred between English speakers being British and seeing South Africa an integral part of Britain, and Afrikaners who were classified as “poor whites.”

British laws in the Cape colony had seen Afrikaners trek north to create independent Republics. The discovery of gold and diamonds set the stage for the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902).

After Britain’s victory Transvaal and Orange Free State became part of the British Empire. A no colour-bar franchise was introduced in the Cape by liberal Afrikaners.

Union in 1910 was followed by JBM Hertzog’s new National Party in 1913 which won the election in 1924. South Africa became independent in 1931.

The 1930’s Depression brought English and Afrikaans people together and the United Party was formed. Dr DF Malan established a far right party. Black voters were removed from the roll in 1936.

During World War 2 South Africa allowed Britain to use Simon’s Town naval base. It was the 100th anniversary of the Great Trek and building a Voortrekker Monument was planned.

This was the situation in 1939. Smuts, with stature enhanced, formed a government and addressed Parliament in London. He became a member of the British War Cabinet and Afrikaners drifted back to him. A Royal visit was planned.

Its success started the moment the Royal Family boarded the 14-car White Train hissing with steam. At the first stop, Queenstown, there were cheering faces, hats thrown high, church bells, tears, presentations and a walkabout. Blacks shouted Father of the Nation and sang Nkosi Sikelel iAfrica.

Port Elizabeth was a success and Bloemfontein was their first visit to a predominantly Afrikaans-speaking city. The council were smitten by the Queen’s beauty and charm, and she thought they were “men of iron”.

Post-war held shocks for Smuts. The tour’s success had led to the belief that a coalition would be possible. Havenga formed a pact with the Nationalists and Malan ousted Smuts in 1948. Nationalists in power, apartheid, retreat from Empire and Commonwealth were not forecast by Smuts.

Africans, 61 percent of the population, had no vote and Land Acts of 1913 and 1936 had left them with 13.5 per cent of the land. Cape blacks and Indians were removed from the common voters’ roll.

During the Royal tour blacks highlighted politics and people like Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela urged confrontation. Restrictions were under the King’s name but the great majority of blacks welcomed the Royal party.

South African racial issues were internationalised and in 1946 the UN disallowed South West Africa’s annexation by South Africa. India, with US support, censured the country for its treatment of Indians. In the US 38 of 48 US states banned mixed marriages.

On 18 March, the Royal party went to Eshowe for the great Zulu Ngoma Nkosai dance by 6 000 warriors. The King was appalled at not being allowed to pin medals on black ex-servicemen or chiefs. Smuts told Princess Elizabeth he could not contemplate everything built by whites being lost to blacks. The Princess said the Zulus were broken people.

Durban was a modern British city of South Africans “hewn from English rock”. The Royal Family were cheered by 300 000 people on the drive to the City Hall – including The Lady in White, Perle Gibson, who had sung to troops at the harbour. More than half the Indian population, 65 000, turned out. The King said thousands of fighting men and women had happy memories of the city.

The King and Queen talked to bereaved mothers and widows and met the founder of MOTH, 23 000 of whom marched down West Street to the King’s salute at the City Hall.

When the White Train stopped in Bechuanaland in April, the King agreed with its regent Tshekedi Khama that Smuts should not annex the country. ANC and Indian delegations were at the UN when Nehru’s sister Mrs Pandit put forward a deprecatory motion about South Africa’s treatment of Indians. Smuts was defeated by a two-thirds majority. His world was falling apart.

In predominantly Afrikaans speaking Pretoria, formerly the seat of Paul Kruger’s Boer republic, there was to be no State Ball dancing, the dominees said, The Royal Family watched volkspele instead. The Banquet, attended by 630 guests, was the highlight and the Queen, with diamond and sapphire tiara and a great diamond and sapphire necklace, was the centre of attraction.

The gardens at Pretoria’s Government House were designed by Sir Herbert Baker, and were beautifully prepared with monumental flower arrangements. The Union Building was Baker’s crowning achievement. Southwards the Voortrekker Monument was rising.

The King, reaching out to the Afrikaans population, made no reference to the hopes of the non-whites. He quoted Kruger and asked the guests to sing Sarie Marais.

Johannesburg, built “on a rock of gold” was a marvel. A sea of Union Jacks had been raised on all buildings, except in Afrikaans areas. The population was outraged at the one-day allotted and the Royal Family gave up a leisure day to Johannesburg, whose tumultuous welcome compared to Pretoria’s, impressed the King.

A detour was made into Alexandria where 60 000 blacks welcomed the Royal party. A children’s choir sang Die Stem and a black pipe band in tartan kilts played Scottish airs. The visitors were disappointed at the misery compared with the happy herdsmen in the country areas.

Johannesburg had a large and influential Jewish community, which included Helen Suzman, Sir Ernest Oppenheimer and Sir George Albu. They had grown in number with refugees from Lithuania.

One million people cheered the Royal Family. Dr HF Verwoerd, editor and future prime minister, refused to comment. Flood-lighting and 16 km of coloured fairy lights created a highway of loveliness. The City Hall’s 12 000 white lamps remained on until Princess Elizabeth’s birthday. Watching from a building top was Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia whose parents were in exile in South Africa.

A visit to Orlando saw hundreds of thousands of blacks cheering. The King inspected ex-servicemen and a children’s choir of 6 000 sang to them. Squalor there contrasted with Turfontein where they received a great welcome. The King’s Cup winner’s cheque was presented to Britain’s Flood Relief Fund, and as part of a birthday gift to Princess Elizabeth.

A banquet was held in the City Hall and the Princesses were welcomed by a line of girls and partners holding coral gladiolus like crossed swords. People danced in the streets and later the Royal family, from the top of Eskom House, were treated to the biggest fireworks display seen in South Africa.

Doornkloof in Irene with its charming prefabricated wood and iron house was where Smuts lived while Parliament adjourned. Mrs Isie Smuts, under house arrest during the Anglo Boer War, was a pretty, blond, blue-eyed Stellenbosch student when she met Smuts. She was blue-stockinged and clever and raised funds for servicemen and visited them in Cairo, where she was named Ouma.

Prince Paul had signed a Tripartite Pact with the Axis Powers. Britain put him into exile in Cairo. In South Africa his family suffered a pariah status. The King and Queen met them at Doornkloof.

The Duke of Kent’s family were sent to South Africa. Princess Paul’s cousin and his beautiful wife, Crown Princess Frederica of Greece, were housed in Cape Town after Germany had invaded Greece. There was gossip that Smuts was having an affair with her during her husband’s absences (and later when she was Queen Frederica of Greece).

Monday 21st April was to many the climax of the tour, the Princess’s 21st birthday, with a military parade, youth rally, a broadcast of dedication and celebrations, including a Government House Ball and a public ball. It emphasised the Union’s place in the Commonwealth, with equal status with Britain. The Royals were just as at home there as they were in London, Ottawa or Canberra.

On her birthday the Princess received hundreds of telegrams, letters and gifts from South Africa. At noon 21-gun salutes were fired from Signal Hill, Vanguard, cruisers and sloops off Simon’s Town.

The Princess’s speech (pre-recorded at Victoria Falls) was broadcast. She ended by saying her whole life would be devoted to serve the people of the great imperial family to which all belonged.

At the ball guests formed up in two horseshoes around the room and everyone was overcome by the splendour and beauty of the Queen and her daughters.

After dinner, the party stopped at a dais to watch a fireworks display at the docks where the quays at Duncan Dock had a string of coloured lights. Cape Town was lit up with 25 000 light bulbs, Table Mountain floodlighting had been improved and Capetonians poured into the city. The climax was a tableaux of vast portraits of the King and Queen and Princesses outlined in blazing gunpowder.

At a second-tier civic ball with 3 000 people the Mayor presented the Princess with a golden key to the City as a token of enduring loyalty and freedom to the hearts of all Capetonians she had captured.

Smuts presented the Union’s gift – 21 flawless, modern cut diamonds, with 52 facets to maximise their brilliance, and all of top colour D. She refers to them as “my best diamonds”.

On 24 April, the day of departure, the White Train halted on the foreshore. The Queen said she and the King had received many letters from soldiers and sailors and their wives, asking that their thanks be passed on to South Africans for their kindness during wartime.

The King met members of both Houses of Parliament, including Nationalists who had regretted their boycott. After a parade of 9 000 ex-servicemen, the King and Queen shook hands with 40 soldiers blinded during the war. The Queen received an honorary degree of Doctor of Law from the University of Cape Town and was cheered by almost the entire student body on the steps leading to Jameson Hall.

The Vanguard was packed with acquisitions. Foodstuffs rationed in England, which was suffering its worst winter in living memory, large parcels of woollen comforts, and a “magnificent cheque” for the flooded homeless and flood relief.

The Union’s official gift to the King was 399 specially cut diamonds, a drop diamond and 230 rose diamonds to be made into his Garter star, all in a gold casket with a diamond Springbok on its lid.

The Queen received a solid gold tea service and a 8.55 carat solitaire, marquise diamond in addition to Princess Margaret’s “What about Mummy” diamond from Sir Ernest Oppenheimer.

Among Princess Elizabeth’s diamond gifts was a brooch in the shape of a flame lily, Rhodesia’s national flower. Princess Margaret’s diamonds included a 4 ½ carat blue-white from De Beers.

There were 480 guests at the farewell State luncheon at the City Hall. There to meet them was Dr Malan and his wife who went with the King and Queen to the Mayor’s parlour and the King called for sherry. Malan, invited by the King, said the conversation had been informal and friendly.

At the farewell luncheon Prime Minister Smuts said there had ”never been a wave of personal and national emotion as your visit had stirred amongst us.”

In the King’s reply was the valedictory sentence: “May South Africa advance from strength to strength in justice and righteousness and in happiness to all its people.”

The Queen, in an impromtu speech, switched to Afrikaans to say: “You welcomed us here as friends and gave us your hearts. For all that I thank you, and God bless you all. Good-bye,” Adding: “Totsiens.” She apparently used it throughout her life.

There was a final appearance on the balcony of the City Hall and there were even greater crowds (100 000) to see them off than there were to welcome them as they drove to the docks. The Guard of Honour of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Rifles presented arms and Die Stem and God Save the King were played for the last time.

While the King inspected them a choir of all races sang, “Will Ye No Come Back Again”, and the crowd joined in. The Queen thanked the Police, especially for vetting every horse provided for the Princesses.

A 21 gun salute was fired from Signal Hill and the Royal Marine Guard were inspected to another favourite, ”Carry the Lad That’s Born to be King; Over the Sea to Skye.” High above on the balcony of the Vanguard from one of the gun turrets the Royal Family appeared and waved a final farewell.

The band and choir and the crowd burst into, “Land of Hope and Glory”, as overhead aircraft dipped their wings in salute. The crowd cordon was broken and more songs ended with “Auld Lang Syne”.

Smuts and the touring party believed the tour had been an outstanding success. Smuts wrote this to the King saying the visit had given South Africa an insight into the heart of the Commonwealth.

Black journalists said a thousand visits would not remove the national oppression of Non-Europeans.

In his summing up, Malan said he hoped all would join in showing the same love and loyalty for all things really South African.

The Economist in London dispensed with the issue of monarchy versus a republic in South Africa. It said next year’s election will not be fought over monarchy so much as over the colour problem.

Malan said the white world would be swamped in a Western world order that saw segregation as incompatible with fundamental human rights.

They received a great welcome in England after travelling 11 000 miles and been seen by 60 -70 percent of the population. But the crowds were shocked by the King’s gaunt appearance.

South Africa went to the polls and the results shocked everyone, even Malan. From a majority of 40 seats over Malan, Smuts’ party had eight seats less. Smuts lost his own seat in Standerton. His failure to allow the delimitation commission to sit had been a crushing blow. He actually won by 158 350 votes, 53-49 per cent of the total vote, as opposed to Malan and Havenga’s 39.85 per cent.

South African politics became an issue of maintaining white supremacy in the face of black nationalism, culminating in the outlawing of the ANC and the PAC in the early 1960s following the Sharpeville massacre. From the late 1950s both JG Strydom and HF Verwoerd saw a Republic as a unification tool for the white races. Smuts appeared not to be able to provide firm answers.

The King died, aged 56, in 1952 shortly before revisiting South Africa, at Malan’s invitation, to convalesce on the Natal South Coast where he himself had convalesced. This highly controversial issue in England and by movements of freedom came to an end with the King’s death. It also saw the “break-up of a warm happy – devoted family unit”.

The new Queen was crowned in 1953 as Queen of South Africa. Malan attended the ceremony. The crowds were against South Africa but in the country English-speaking shops and institutions recognised the Queen and were decorated. Hardly any Government buildings did. British supporters were considered traitors.

At the end of the 50s the Progressive Party of white racial consciousness was formed, but only Helen Suzman was elected. English-speaking women formed black help movements, such as the Black Sash.

Strydom, also committed to a Republic, followed Malan in 1954 and then came Verwoerd. Afrikaans speakers were widely employed by Government and corruption, graft and incompetence followed.

Verwoerd called for a referendum on the Republic issue in October 1960, the year Harold MacmiIllan, British Prime Minister arrived in Cape Town. Coloureds and Indians were excluded from voting which could have changed the outcome. Only 52.29 per cent voted for a Republic.

Macmillan addressed Parliament saying: “The wind of change is blowing through this continent”. He then admitted to a complete shift in British policy towards apartheid. Verwoerd said that although South Africa had the same monarch as Britain, they were on their own.

At the Commonwealth Conference in London in March 1961, Verwoerd applied for South Africa to remain a member but was told they could only be re-admitted if they condemned apartheid. He walked out and received a hero’s welcome when he returned home.

On 31 May 1961 South Africa became a Republic and retreated into a laager for another 33 years.

Reviewed by Robin Whales


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