Empire, race and some surprises from the royal tour of 1947

last hurrah

The then Princess Elizabeth making a speech to the British empire on her 21st birthday.


The Last Hurrah: South Africa and the Royal Tour of 1947, by Graham Viney (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

The results of the 1948 general election, which saw DF Malan’s National Party seize power from Jan Smuts’s United Party, have always been described as shocking and entirely unexpected.

Even Malan was said to be surprised, reports Graham Viney in this thoughtful, nuanced snapshot of a post-war South Africa that was about to disappear into the grip of formal apartheid and nationalism.

But it would seem more than a year earlier Smuts had had a glimpse of the future. Vijaya Pandit, sister of Jawaharlal Nehru, head of the interim Indian government in the run-up to independence there, had gone to the United Nations General Assembly with a “deprecatory” motion about South Africa’s policies towards its Indian residents. The motion was passed by two-thirds majority and Smuts, who had drafted the preamble to the United Nations charter, was “publicly humiliated in a forum where he expected reverence”.

After the vote, Viney reports, Pandit made her way across the floor to Smuts to ask his forgiveness. He was having none of it. He said: “You have won a hollow victory. This vote will put me out of power in our next elections, but you will have gained nothing.”

Had Smuts won in 1948 – and he did get 53% of the vote but was defeated by the effects of the delimitation of constituencies – our history might have been very different. At the time of the royal visit the Smuts-appointed Fagan Commission was investigating changes to the system of segregation. It recommended that influx control of African people to urban areas be relaxed, and that a stabilised population of African workers be created in urban areas.

Certainly this was not entirely or even mainly intended for the benefit of Africans themselves – the idea was to create a reliable work force and more customers for retailers – but it might have been a beginning.

However, its recommendations were ignored when the National Party came to power in 1948. The party appointed its own Sauer Commission, whose recommendations were the opposite of Fagan’s, and we know where that went.

The Last Hurrah is a great book, combining as it does profound political insights with the froth and flag-waving of a hugely successful royal tour. Despite a threatened boycott of the tour by Africans and Indians, South Africans turned out in their hundreds of thousands all over the country to wave at the royals as the White Train trundled past sidings, through small towns and into major cities. Even in Pretoria and Bloemfontein, capitals of the defeated Boer republics only 45 years or so before, the royals were mobbed.

Naturally English-speaking South Africans were particularly enthusiastic, and many saw the tour as a kind of victory parade and thank-you for the efforts of South African soldiers during the recently ended World War II.

Unlikely as it seems, author Graham Viney is a Cape Town-based interior designer – he is also the author of Colonial Houses of South Africa – and is not above making the odd delightfully snide comment on the arrangements for the royal family.

At the ball held at Government House – now Tuynhuys – on April 21 to celebrate the then Princess Elizabeth’s 21st birthday, the room was decorated with red zinnias and golden chrysanthemums, specially grown by the city of Cape Town’s parks and gardens department to match the ballroom’s new curtains. They did not, however, look “at all like Fairyland, whatever the Cape Argus later said”.

He has another comment that will resonate with Capetonians. On her birthday Princess Elizabeth went to Youngsfield at 3pm to take the salute at a military parade and watch a marchpast of 9 000 troops. Just 75 minutes later, at 4.15pm, “in a marvel of traffic control that would surely defeat the traffic police of present-day Cape Town”, the princess was at Rosebank to meet mayor Abe Bloomberg at a youth rally. One must assume there was a blue-light brigade.

As a man with clear design sense, Viney is very satisfactory in his descriptions of all the magnificent outfits worn by the queen (later known as the Queen Mother), the princesses, and the leading lights of South African society.

At the end of the of the tour, which lasted from mid-February to late April and included the then Protectorate of Bechuanaland and Southern Rhodesia, the royal party left laden with gifts, including hundreds of diamonds, a solid gold tea service, a knitted dress and an ostrich cape for Princess Elizabeth, and gold bullion worth £15million as part of a loan by South Africa to a threadbare post-war Britain.

Viney recounts one final delicious story of a gift of diamonds, a story confirmed years later by the Queen Mother herself to Nicholas Oppenheimer. The royal party visited the diamond sorting room at Kimberley, where the princesses but not the queen were presented with diamonds. Princess Margaret, then 16, asked: “But what about mummy’s?” Sir Ernest Oppenheimer “had to smartly dip into his private collection for something suitable…”

Liberally scattered with never-before seen pictures of the tour, The Last Hurrah is a wonderful read and a reminder of how different this country was, as Viney puts it, “two South Africas ago”.

  • A version of this review appeared in Weekend Argus on Sunday on November 18, 2018.

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