As the world marks Nelson Mandela’s passing, we take a moment to reflect on the extraordinary relationship the former South African President and Her Majesty The Queen shared.
“It began at the 1991 heads of government meeting in Harare,” recalled Chief Emeka Anyaoku, a former Commonwealth Secretary General. “Mandela had been invited to Salisbury by Robert Mugabe with my agreement although, at that time, he was only the leader of the African National Congress and not a head of government. At that time, indeed, South Africa was not even a member of the Commonwealth.
“I was one of the first to arrive, and was surprised to see Mandela talking to the Zimbabwe liaison officer. There had been some misunderstanding, and he was obviously expecting to come to the Queen’s banquet, which is strictly for heads of government.
“So, Robert Fellowes [The Queen's then Private Secretary] and I had to decide what advice to give The Queen, who, at that point, had not even met Mandela. When we told her what the situation was, she immediately said: ‘Let’s have him.’
“She had absolutely no hesitation. I thought it was a remarkable piece of judgment. After all, Mrs Thatcher had called Mandela a terrorist at our Vancouver meeting in 1987. So, he came to the banquet. In May 1994, he became president of South Africa and, in the following month, South Africa rejoined the Commonwealth.”
That was the beginning of a remarkable friendship. When Mandela came to the United Kingdom for a state visit in 1996, he poured out his admiration for “this gracious lady” at a lunch he gave for her. “In reply,” said a former mandarin who was there, “she got up, without a note in her hand, and praised ‘this wonderful man’.”
Mandela had said that he would prefer a party at the Albert Hall with thousands of young people present rather than a state banquet at Buckingham Palace, and The Queen readily agreed.
“She came and sat with him in his box,” recalled the former mandarin, “and, when Mandela stood up and did his famous bop as Phil Collins’s band was belting it out, The Queen stood up and did the same. I was hosting a box four away from theirs, and one of the more Establishment figures with me said: ‘Good heavens, The Queen is dancing!’ ”
Throughout his life, Nelson Mandela always referred to Her Majesty as ‘my dear friend Elizabeth’, their friendship was so close that protocol simply became cast aside – it was truly a relationship based on personal respect.
When they met, it was never just another state ritual for The Queen or the usual practice of meeting with ex-leaders, it was the meeting of two friends who held each other in only the very highest respect. There is no doubt that Nelson Mandela’s death would have affected The Queen on a very personal level.
Maybe, just maybe, The Queen may even decide to personally attend his state funeral.