The year the royals popped into SA for a nice cup of tea
An extract from ‘The Last Hurrah’, about the 1947 visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth and family
The Last Hurrah (Jonathan Ball Publishers, R285) is about the the royal tour of 1947 in SA. The book, by Graham Viney, examines this pivotal moment in our history – just a year before the National Party came to power under DF Malan. The tour was truly British SA’s last hurrah, a show of Empire solidarity and a recognition of SA’s role and contribution to the Allied cause during World War 2, and more specifically of Prime Minister Jan Smuts.
Viney describes the the tour's progress in the specially commissioned white train. In this extract, he analyses the politics of the time the tour came to Johannesburg. The society, however fractious, still welcomed King George VI and Queen Elizabeth and their daughters, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, with great pomp and ceremony. On the front jacket writer Rian Malan says, “It’s the story about a country most of us will barely recognise, teetering on the brink of convulsive change and yet almost united, at least for a moment, by love for a king and queen who weren’t really ours.”
Extract 1: From Chapter 7 Johannesburg: ‘Becher’s Brook, Second Time Round’ April Fool’s Day 1947 In its leader of 28 March 1947, The Star, Johannesburg’s evening newspaper, told its readers: ‘The royal visitors are now approaching the greatest city in southern Africa. In a few days they will see what many of us, with some justification, regard as the greatest marvel of all – a large, modern city in the heart of what was till recently the dark continent: a fantastic silhouette, like a single many-turreted castle, dominating a wide plain and built on a rock of gold.’
This was not solely a Eurocentric view; black writers too spoke of it as a ‘throbbing giant’ and of their fascination with ‘the garish lights … the colour and rumble of the city.’ The writer Es’kia Mphahlele, gazing out of his not-yet-electrified house in Orlando, contemplated ‘the beauty of distant electric lights … [that] blink and tease the spirit of the night: little sparkling fires, so unearthly, so inorganic.’
Not everyone connected with the royal tour, however, regarded Johannesburg as the greatest marvel of all. The Central Committee and the Transvaal provincial sub-committee had all along felt that Pretoria, 48km to the north, the administrative capital of the Union and the headquarters of its Defence Force, with Church Square at its heart and fine public buildings and tree-lined avenues, had deserved first priority – and by far the greatest number of days allocated.
Nor was there a Government House in Johannesburg to house the Royal Family; as we know, it was situated in Pretoria. The entire royal party could therefore have nine days in comfort off the White Train.
There was almost certainly another factor, never actually expressed, at work here: Pretoria was also the old capital of Kruger’s Boer republic, and it was essential that the Royal Family should be seen to give it its full due and earn a warm reception there. With all that in mind, the committee had therefore contrived to give Johannesburg merely one day of the itinerary. For the city that was the largest and richest in SA, this was clearly absurd. But the courtiers and even the Palace Advance Party seem to have gone along with this from the start – almost certainly also for old-fashioned, snobbish reasons. Like many visitors to the country at that date, they viewed Johannesburg as a brash, vulgar and unruly city – a ‘modern Babylon if ever there was one’, as Lascelles (who didn’t like it and all he felt it stood for) himself described it.
It was planned that the royal party would drive out from Government House, and that Johannesburg and the Reef towns would be visited on two consecutive days, with the party returning to Pretoria each night. At that date, even on pre-cleared roads, this involved a journey of an hour.
Everyone seems to have got this one wrong. Pretoria, with a white population of twice as many Afrikaans- as English-speakers, was conservative, sleepy and increasingly Nationalist. Lascelles, who prided himself on being the king’s brother-in-law’s first cousin once removed, might privately profess to prefer the Free Staters of Bloemfontein and its neighbourhood ‘who are as different from the Jo’burgers as a West Country Yeoman is from a Birmingham stockbroker’, but neither they nor the Pretoria Afrikaners were likely to vote for General Smuts in the next or any other election. Johannesburg – modern, moneyed and go-ahead with a vibrant cultural life – had more than twice as many English-speakers as Afrikaans-speakers, and they were a great source of votes and financial support for Smuts’s party. So too, potentially, were the towns of the West and East Rand, which had been given even shorter shrift in the scheme of things on day two.
Not surprisingly, the citizens of Johannesburg were outraged when they learnt of the arrangements. How had East London (total population 76,105) and Bloemfontein (total population 67,196) been given three days each, and their city, with a population of 606,016, only one? There were questions asked, aggrieved articles and letters in the press, and even cartoons showing Johannesburg getting short commons at the dinner table of the royal visit. The local committees protested, as did Mr Welsh, honorary coordinating officer for the Transvaal leg of the tour, who liaised with them, and eventually even the king was made to see that this was a glaring error. To Queen Mary he admitted: ‘The Transvaal people are angry (the officials I mean) that there were not enough days given to them. Two days allowed for the largest city in SA is really too stupid.’
At last, on March 10, Mr Welsh was able to tell the people of Johannesburg that, following a series of specially convened meetings involving everyone from the Tour Manager, the Transvaal Committee and the Witwatersrand Command, the Royal Family had agreed to give up a day of leisure over the Easter weekend and give Johannesburg an extra day: ‘While many people would doubtless prefer even more opportunity of paying homage to the royal guests,’ as he put it, evenly, to the press, ‘they will, nevertheless, be ready to concede that the plan does mark a great improvement on the original.’
The king remained very displeased. By the second day of the visit, he was aware that conservative (and possibly snobbish) forces, even within his household, must have been at work here. In addition to the tumultuous welcome, a great contrast to the polite applause of some of the Pretoria crowds, he was clearly impressed by the vigorous, progressive, go-ahead city and the leading citizens he had met. Doubtless, they were a refreshing change from the conservative and often intransigent Afrikaner politicians and civic personalities he had come across again and again elsewhere. At the second civic luncheon on the following day, therefore, he decided to make an impromptu speech. Given the strains of the two crowded days and his dislike of public speaking, his breaking with the careful advanced planning suggests that there was something he particularly wanted to say. There was, and it went well beyond the usual platitudes expressed on such occasions: ‘There is an atmosphere here that I find very encouraging and stimulating,’ he told the assembled guests, with the skill of appearing to make a personal aside, and adding, significantly, ‘it is, I can assure you, a pleasure to be among this progressive and friendly community.’
Yet another protest about the proposed programme had come in, this time from the black townships – Alexandra to the north, and Orlando to the southwest. By 1947 their populations, greatly increased during the war as result of Smuts’s policy to relax influx control to supply manpower for the factories contributing to the war effort, were, officially at least, 52,000 and 57,660, respectively. In reality, they were almost certainly significantly higher. The inhabitants lived in vibrant squalor with a nascent overlay of civic ‘black Britishness’ which the authorities hoped to further extend. There were schools attended by simply uniformed children who might also be Pathfinders, Wayfarers and Sunbeams, a post office, bus services, an overworked clinic, and so on. On the day of the visit itself, for example, black members of the St John’s Ambulance and the Red Cross stood by in both townships to offer first aid to the crowds. The Rand’s English-language press, at least, noted this approvingly.
For now, however, at the planning stage of the visit, the inhabitants objected strongly. If the royal family were driving over from Pretoria, and practically skirting Alexandra, how was it that they were to be bypassed? Over 50,000 people lived here, almost all black, and was it because of this, they wondered? Threats of non-cooperation and boycotts hung in the air.
The royal family, by now all too aware of the sensitivities within a sharply segregated society, and the whites-only tour organisers’ keenness to show a town’s more attractive aspects at the expense of large communities, agreed readily to depart earlier from Government House and make a detour into Alexandra. They may by this stage have been encouraged by the meeting of the executive committee of the Johannesburg branch of the African National Congress in February (presided over by the president-general, AB Xuma, in person), where, by 15 votes to two, it was agreed not to boycott the royal visit. Smuts, who tracked these developments carefully, was certainly aware of this.