SOUTH AFRICA IS a nation that took a long time birthing, from the first steps van Riebeeck took on the sands of Table Bay in 1652, through the tumult of the native wars, the tremendous conflict between Briton & Boer, and ultimately what was hoped would be the final reconciliation in Union of South Africa — 1910. In that year, young Prince Albert of York & of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was just fifteen years of age, and South Africa became a dominion just weeks after his father became King George V.
Albert was the second son of a second son, so at the time of his birth (and for most of his early life) it was never expected that he would one day be King of Great Britain, Emperor of India. It was his brother’s abdication that thrust poor Bertie, as he was always known to his loved ones, upon the throne imperial. It was a cold December day in 1936 that the heralds of the Court of St. James proclaimed him George VI.
By his nature, the King was a quiet and reserved man, partly because of the stammer that impeded his speech. George VI was happiest among his family, and they accompanied him in 1947 on a long voyage aboard HMS Vanguard, to his far-off kingdom on the other side of the world, where the two oceans meet. It was the first time a reigning monarch has set foot on South African soil, and Capetonians waited in earnest anticipation to see their sovereign. How appropriate that this happy city — moederstad, or “mother-city”, of all South Africa — would be the first to receive him.
The King & Queen of South Africa were officially welcomed at the Grand Parade, the open square on which sits the Castle of Good Hope — the oldest building in South Africa — and that gem of the Edwardian baroque, the City Hall.
The constitutional highlight of the visit, however, was on a following day, when the King officially opened a session of the Parliament of South Africa. It was the first time in the history of the British Empire that the reigning sovereign opened a dominion parliament. (As King of Canada, George VI had visited his parliament in Ottawa in 1939, but only to give assent to a number of laws; not to open the parliamentary session itself).
Seated on his throne in the Senate, the King read out a brief speech in English, before instructing Christiaan Andries van Niekerk, the gowned and be-wigged Lord President of the Senate, to read a translation of the speech in Afrikaans. Then, speaking in both English and Afrikaans, he declared the parliamentary session open.
While in Cape Town, the Royal Family stayed at Government House, as the Tuynhuys was then known. The residence has since been de-Victorianised, and restored to its classical appearance. Walking with the Queen is the King’s Equerry, Group Captain Peter Townshend, who later had an infelicitous romance with Princess Margaret.
Perhaps of greatest significance was that Princess Elizabeth’s twenty-first birthday — April 21, 1947 — occurred during her stay in South Africa, a land over which she would one day be queen. The Princess took advantage of this anniversary to make the first prominent speech of her life:
I cannot do quite as they did, but through the inventions of science, I can do what was not possible for any of them. I can make my solemn act of dedication with the whole empire listening. I should like to make that dedication now.
It is very simple: I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.
But I shall not have the strength to carry out this resolution alone, unless you join in it with me as I now invite you to do. I know that your support will be unfailingly given. God help me to make good my vow and God bless all of you who are willing to share in it.
The South African monarchy was not to last. In many ways, the Royal Visit of 1947 was the twilight of the old order in South Africa. Just a year later, the Nationalists were voted into power and the system of apartheid was born. The Union of South Africa survived just over fifty years before it was supplanted by the Republic — but that is a story for another day.
Elsewhere: Royal Tour of South Africa, 1947 (BBC)