John Scott Masthead
May 29 2012 at 11:57

Queen Elizabeth became queen 60 years ago in the same year that South Africa celebrated the tercentenary of Van Riebeeck’s landing at the Cape.

I grew up in a family where her accession to the throne took slight precedence over the other event.

This week, as Britain pulls out all the stops for her majesty’s diamond jubilee, neither she nor Van figure as largely in South African consciousness as they once did. But as a schoolboy at the time, I felt a personal interest in the British royal family, having waved to them several times during their visit to South Africa five years earlier, in 1947.

They had arrived in Cape Town on the battleship HMS Vanguard, and when it was opened to the public, our family trooped round the vessel.

Two years after the end of World War II white bread was still unobtainable, though my mother used to bake it illegally. Then, in Vanguard’s galley I spotted dozens of stacked white loaves and called everybody’s attention to this sign of royal indulgence.

The school lined us up in Plumstead’s main road to wave our flags at the royal motorcade, and a day or two later, on Princess Elizabeth’s 21st birthday, my mother, my brother and I walked several miles from our home to Youngsfield aerodrome for a fleeting glimpse of her in an open Daimler. She then went on to the races at Kenilworth, and that evening attended a dance in the city hall.

The Graaff family prize a picture of the princess in the arms of a young Sir De Villiers, later to become United Party leader of the opposition.

King George VI and his family took a trip up Table Mountain by cable-car, but the prime minister, General Smuts, then 77, insisted on walking up by way of Skeleton Gorge (the path is now called Smuts’ Track) and met them at the top.

They toured the country in the White Train, one of whose carriages can still be seen, and boarded, at the George’s railway museum.

Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, a staunch republican, was editor of Die Transvaler at the time and refused to acknowledge the royal family’s presence in the country. He merely drew attention to the disruption of traffic of Johannesburg without explaining the reason for it.

The death of the king in February 1952 came as a shock but was soon superseded by excitement at the beautiful young woman we had seen becoming queen.

It was more than a year later, on June 2, that her coronation in Westminster Abbey took place, preceded by 16 months of preparation.

The first meeting of the Coronation Commission was held in April 1952, the same month that Van Riebeeck’s arrival exactly 300 years earlier was celebrated in a huge temporary stadium on Cape Town’s Foreshore.

A film was made of the coronation in 1953 and ran for weeks in one of Cape Town’s main cinemas. Our entire class was given the morning off and taken into the city by train to see it.

I think we all got a bit bored by proceedings in the Abbey.

Far more interesting was the news that had come through, on the morning of the coronation, that Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, had reached the summit of Mount Everest.

Sir Edmund would later be introduced to the audience from the stage of the same cinema by my father, the manager. I suspect they were both royalists in a way that later generations of South Africans and even New Zealanders aren’t.


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