Walking around the Buckingham Palace picture gallery, King Charles III and Camilla, Queen Consort took their hosting duties during South African president Cyril Ramaphosa’s official state visit on Tuesday seriously.
Neatly displayed around the room were a range of items from the Royal Collection Trust put out to serve as reminders of Britain’s relationship with South Africa and provide talking points with the visiting leader.
Among the pieces on show was the text of the famous “I declare before you all…” radio broadcast given by a then-Princess Elizabeth on her 21st birthday. There were also photos of the late Queen with Nelson Mandela, as well as a map showing the route of the Royal Train during the first royal tour of South Africa by King George VI.
Ramaphosa showed keen interest in each artefact, polite diplomacy on full display as he chatted with the King and Queen Consort. Close behind were Prince William and Princess Kate, who were having their own conversations with South Africa’s foreign minister Naledi Pandor, and the Earl and Countess of Wessex accompanying the rest of the delegation.
The exhibit was a curious collection of items, also including a chess set gifted from Mandela to Prince Philip in 1996 and a photo of Charles with the Spice Girls in Johannesburg. But if fascinating artefacts from South Africa with royal links were the order of the day, it was missing the most precious and important items – the stolen ones.
Locked away in the Tower of London and a Buckingham Palace vault are a number of jewels with less positive background stories, including the world’s largest diamond. Known to many as the Cullinan, this 3,106 carat gem was mined in South Africa’s old Transvaal province in 1905 and presented to King Edward VII two years later.
In 1908 he had it cut into nine large stones – the largest, the Great Star of Africa, went on the Sovereign’s Sceptre, and the second largest, the Smaller Star of Africa, was mounted into the Imperial State Crown – and 96 smaller pieces for brooches, necklaces and earrings.
Today, the Royal Collection describes the huge diamond as a “birthday gift” to Queen Elizabeth II’s great grandfather, but history books have a less sugar-coated version of the tale – that it was an illegitimate and immorally obtained gem handed over to the Royal Family by South Africa’s colonial authorities.
The topic of colonial theft remains front of mind for many in South Africa, especially since the Queen’s death in September, which saw calls for reparations intensify. But, while it was hoped that the subject would come up during this visit, it remained swept under the carpet this week.
Days before Ramaphosa left for the UK, a poll in South Africa’s Times newspaper saw 83% of readers say they wanted to see their president come back with the “stolen” gems. Two months earlier, South African MP Vuyo Zungula led reinvigorated calls for Britain to return the diamonds.
Of course, it’s easier said than done. Especially when the historic role of the British monarchy and relations with its former colonies were so tip-toed around during this state visit.
During Tuesday’s state banquet, King Charles did acknowledge the darker side of Britain and South Africa’s relationship which “goes back centuries”.
Speaking to Ramaphosa and 170 guests in the ballroom of Buckingham Palace, he said, “While there are elements of that history which provoke profound sorrow, it is essential that we seek to understand them. As I said to Commonwealth leaders earlier this year, we must acknowledge the wrongs which have shaped our past if we are to unlock the power of our common future.”
His words were certainly more than we had heard during previous South African visits. But he could have said so much more during Ramaphosa’s two days in London. Unlike Queen Elizabeth II, Charles’ reign has no connection to Britain’s colonial and imperial eras. Though 74 years old, he still represents a different time.
Watch: What happened during first state banquet of King Charles' reign?
And it’s a shame, because the rest of the visit – which was originally scheduled during Queen Elizabeth II’s reign but postponed due to the pandemic – was largely a success. Not only was it a chance for the new king to discuss his vision for the Commonwealth during more private moments (a conversation I’m told did happen), but also an opportunity for the environmentalist King to talk about Britain’s energy partnership with South Africa to help the transition the world’s 13th worst carbon-emitting economy away from its dependence on coal.
It was also a chance to make up for the poor experience of Ramaphosa’s predecessor, president Jacob Zumba, in 2010, who, after being mocked by the UK press, concluded his visit with aides criticising Britain’s “hypocritical attitude” towards its former colonies.
This state visit has no doubt been the most significant task of Charles’ diplomatic duties since becoming King. And his dinner speech – complete with greetings representing the nine languages used in South Africa – certainly set a different, more equal tone compared to visits of the past. But it also wasn’t quite enough.
Many South African leaders, ministers, and the ruling African National Congress party still harbour a scepticism of the Commonwealth and the British monarchy, and this trip could have helped begin to undo that. An opportunity to add new meaning for the two country’s historically important bilateral relationship.
For next May’s coronation, Charles III will receive the Sovereign’s Sceptre and Camilla has the option of wearing the Queen Mother’s coronation crown with its 105 carat Koh-i-noor diamond. A spokesperson for Indian prime minister Narendra Modi has already brought up the “painful memories of the colonial past” that the stolen stone represents and is exploring ways to get it returned.
Leaving jewels such as these out of sight may be an easy way to avoid discussing the elephant in the room, but it won’t make it disappear. For that to happen, and to truly progress beyond the past, you have to actually address it head on. In other words, finally own it.