Shades of top nation elation in Ramaphosa’s state visit to UK - Businesslive

Nov 27, 2022
27 November 2022 - Historian Simon Schama’s phrase, “top nation elation” came to mind as I mulled over the pomp of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s state visit to London and the vestigial tokens of the long, part rewarding, part tortuous relationship between Britain and the world.

Michael Morris 
Historian Simon Schama’s phrase, “top nation elation”  came to mind as I mulled over the pomp of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s state visit to London and the vestigial tokens of the long, part rewarding, part tortuous relationship between Britain and the world. Schama’s cocky summation referred specifically to Victorian Britain’s sense of self at the 1897 Diamond Jubilee — the first for a British monarch.

The imperial reach, then, was reflected in the attendance of no fewer than 11 colonial prime ministers (two from Southern Africa, from the Cape and Natal), no less than in the words of Victoria herself. With what seems now almost breathtaking presumption — though who’s to say she didn’t mean it? — the Queen telegraphed a message to all nations in the Empire: “From my heart I thank my beloved people. May God bless them.”

Visible in the splendour of the pageantry that remains is that curious blend of self-fascination and grandeur that comes with a history of influence (influence that remains vigorous, after all, chiefly perhaps in the status of the English language, but also in customs and conventions that have become uncomplicatedly universal).

Which reminded me last week of a royal encounter of a very different order. In the early 2000s, while assembling the material for a book on the then 150-year history — 1857 to 2007 — of my long-time journalistic home, the Cape Argus, I was enchanted by pages upon pages of reportage from the second half of 1860 on the visit to the region of Victoria’s second son, Prince Alfred, then a teenage midshipman on HMS Euryalus.

He travelled extensively — there’s a vivid account of his sharing gifts with the Basutho king Mosheshwe at an extraordinary meeting outside Aliwal North and, among other tales, somewhat less dramatically christening the ferry at Commissie Drift with a bottle of boer brandy while journeying north to Bloemfontein. But one of the most remarkable episodes was his return by sea from Algoa Bay to Cape Town. This time, he was not the only royal on board the Euryalus.

Lost opportunity

When I last wrote about this in 2015 I began tantalisingly by describing “two royals” sharing “a sea passage … in the course of which one admiringly watched the other scrub the decks of their ship”. Well, we know 16-year-old Alfred, son of conceivably the most powerful person in the world at the time, was one of the two. He was the deck-scrubber. The watching figure was no less than the king of the Rharhabe people, Ngqika chief Mgolombane Sandile. It might only be romantic, I ventured, to suggest the pair met as equals, “and yet, in a sense, they did”. 

We don’t really know what the older Sandile, then about 40 and a veteran of the long and bloody — and unfinished — Xhosa resistance, made of all this. (He would be mortally wounded in a shoot-out with pro-British Mfengu soldiers in 1878.) However, it’s hard to resist a sense of regret that this 1860 encounter was somehow a lost opportunity, and fell short of the Cape Argus’s conviction that it was “the strongest and most assured guarantee” to the subject peoples of Southern Africa “that they form an integral and essential portion of the British nation”.

The history is complex, but as I concluded in 2015 it may not be entirely cynical to remind ourselves that diamonds and gold had yet to be found in 1860 and, not to put too fine a point on it, Cecil Rhodes was but a sickly seven-year-old living in a vicarage in Hertfordshire.

• Morris is head of media at the SA Institute of Race Relations.

Support the IRR

If you want to see a free, non-racial, and prosperous South Africa, we’re on your side.

If you believe that our country can overcome its challenges with the right policies and decisions, we’re on your side.

Join our growing movement of like-minded, freedom-loving South Africans today and help us make a real difference.

© 2023 South African Institute of Race Relations | CMS Website by Juizi