Analysis: What the South African state visit tells us about the new monarchy

A version of this story appeared in the November 25 edition of CNN’s Royal News, a weekly dispatch bringing you the inside track on Britain’s royal family. Sign up here.

London CNN  — 

Another week, another set of firsts for the new King. This time round, Charles III hosted the first state visit of his reign and welcomed South African President Cyril Ramaphosa to the UK.

It was a short two-day visit but that didn’t stop the monarch from pulling out the stops for a diplomatic tour de force designed to reinforce the relationship between the two nations.

The trip had been in the works before Queen Elizabeth II’s death and while state visits generally stick to a time-honored program of events, King Charles still managed to put his own stamp on the occasion.

He kicked things off with a grand processional welcome teeming with British pomp and pageantry. Charles wasn’t alone as he warmly welcomed Ramaphosa at the Royal Pavilion at Horse Guards Parade in central London. Also in attendance were the Queen Consort and the Prince and Princess of Wales – the couple having been dispatched to Ramaphosa’s hotel to greet the head of state earlier in the day.

More than 1,000 soldiers and 200 horses participated in the ceremonial military spectacle. The South African President looked delighted as he inspected a guard of honor and received a royal salute in the crisp winter sunshine from Number 7 Company Coldstream Guards.

Lt Col James Shaw, who oversees major ceremonial events in his role as Brigade Major of the Household Division, said preparations for Tuesday’s welcome had taken “a huge amount of work,” before revealing that those involved were “very proud to support such an important national occasion.”

“The state visit is a historic first: our first state visit for His Majesty the King and the President of South Africa, the first state visit in London since 2019, the first processional state visit on Horse Guards since 2018, and the first for almost everyone on parade,” the military organizer said, according to the UK’s PA Media news agency.

Following the official welcome, the party took a carriage ride back to Buckingham Palace where Ramaphosa was greeted with a second honor guard. A tour of Royal Collection items themed around South Africa followed a private lunch put on by the King, before an elaborate white-tie state banquet in the evening.

Ramaphosa received a ceremonial welcome at Horse Guards Parade in London.

Customarily held on the first night of a state visit, Buckingham Palace banquets are held in the ballroom, with around 160 invitations extended to individuals with “cultural, diplomatic or economic links to the country being hosted.”

Before everyone tucks into the lavish feast (a starter of grilled brill with wild mushrooms and truffles with a sorrel sauce, followed by Windsor pheasant filled with artichokes, quince compote and a port sauce for the main, in case you were wondering), the monarch traditionally says a few words and raises a glass to the guest of honor.

Charles wowed Ramaphosa by opening his speech with the word “welcome” in several different languages used in South Africa. After cracking a few jokes, the King praised the economic, scientific and cultural ties between the countries. All standard remarks for a banquet speech, but Charles also didn’t shy away from more challenging subjects, broaching the UK’s troubled legacy of colonialism.

“While there are elements of that history which provoke profound sorrow, it is essential that we seek to understand them,” he said. “We must acknowledge the wrongs which have shaped our past if we are to unlock the power of our common future.”

Charles’s comments were seen by many as part of a continued effort to unify the Commonwealth realms, some of which have in recent years expressed intentions to sever ties with London.

The Prince and Princess of Wales look set to play a more active role during Charles' reign.

The monarch also chose the occasion to call for future cooperation on finding “practical solutions to the twin existential threats of climate change and biodiversity loss.”

With this first visit from a foreign leader coming just two months into his reign, the King was also keen to reflect on his late mother’s relationship with South Africa, recalling her visits to the country, the times she hosted Ramaphosa’s predecessors in London and the friendship she shared with revered statesman Nelson Mandela.

Other royals were also keen to make Elizabeth II’s presence felt, with Camilla donning the late Queen’s dazzling sapphire and diamond tiara with matching necklace and bracelet, and Kate wearing a bracelet that belonged to the family matriarch.

The South African state visit was Charles’s first big diplomatic test. He revealed that while he’ll lean on templates established by his mother, he also wants to shake things up and tackle issues that matter to him and his subjects head on.

Tellingly, he’s also planning on doing it with Camilla, William and Kate firmly at his side, and with other members of the House of Windsor backing up their plays. It became commonplace to see Charles support and sometimes stand in for his mother in the twilight of her reign. But this week, the prominence of the Prince and Princess of Wales during the state visit indicated that the couple have been elevated into crucial central roles. All four will work together, front and center, sharing duties as they seek to secure the future of the dynasty.

PHOTOS OF THE WEEK

Here’s a few of our favorite shots from the first state visit King Charles hosted as monarch.

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South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa departs Horse Guards Parade with King Charles III and Camilla, Queen Consort in the Irish State Coach, en route to Buckingham Palace at the start of the President’s two-day state visit.

03 Ramaphosa UK visit

After sharing a private lunch, the King and President headed to Buckingham Palace’s Picture Gallery where they viewed items from the Royal Collection connected to South Africa. Here, Ramaphosa holds a photograph of anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela, who served as South Africa’s president in the 90s, with the late Queen Elizabeth II.

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Ramaphosa was also invited to visit Westminster Abbey, where he was shown a memorial stone for Mandela. He was accompanied by the Dean of Westminster Abbey, The Very Reverend Dr. David Hoyle.

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Chuckles around the dinner table as King Charles speaks during the state banquet on Tuesday night.

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The following day, the Earl of Wessex accompanied Ramaphosa to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Later, the pair visited the Francis Crick Institute, a research center that collaborates with the University of KwaZulu-Natal. During the stop they learned about technology being used across the African continent to diagnose infections and met with South African scientists and students.

01 Ramaphosa UK visit

The state visit also allowed UK PM Rishi Sunak the opportunity to welcome Ramaphosa to 10 Downing Street for a bilateral meeting.

WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING?

Charles’ day of engagements in the capital.

The King was a man about town on Wednesday, as he visited three of the institutions that are home to many of the country’s leading lawyers, doctors and jewelers. First, the King visited Gray’s Inn, one of London’s four Inns of Court where barristers have cut their teeth for more than six centuries. Charles met with many of the trainees hoping soon to be called to the Bar, before touring that Inn’s pristine grounds in central London. From there, the King made the short journey to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital – the oldest hospital in the UK – where a restoration project is set to begin in 2023, the building’s 900th anniversary year. Specialist craftspeople are rejuvenating the historic North Wing of the facility – a Grade I listed piece of architecture adorned with a medieval grand staircase and paintings by William Hogarth. The King met with those working to restore the building, as well as frontline hospital staff. To round off the day, the King visited the Goldsmith’s Centre, the UK’s leading educational charity for training jewelers and silversmiths. Aware of the King’s longstanding commitments to environmental causes, the Goldsmiths’ Company gifted him a cross created from recycled silver. The day showed how Britain’s historic institutions continue to fizz with new talent.

King Charles met jewelers and silversmiths at The Goldsmiths' Center Wednesday.

Camilla helps Paddington Bears find new homes this Christmas.

Who knew that when the Queen sat down with Paddington Bear for high tea she would become intrinsically linked to the adorable children’s literature character? The unlikely duo so touched the country that, after the monarch’s death, mourners had to be asked by the Palace if they would kindly stop leaving his trademark marmalade sandwiches among the floral tributes. Mourners went on to leave more than 1,000 Paddington Bear toys outside royal residences. Not wanting them to go to waste, the toys were collected, cleaned, and this week donated to the Barnardos children’s charity by the Queen Consort. A fleet of taxis delivered the bears in style, along with Camilla herself, to Barnardo’s nursery in Bow, east London on Thursday. After a very special teddy bears’ picnic, some of the cuddly toys were gifted to children there; others will be distributed to kids around the country supported by the charity.

Camilla personally delivered some of the thousands of Paddington Bears left in the Queen's memory.

David Hockney adds a splash of color to Palace proceedings.

British artist David Hockney has made a career out of his extravagant uses of color – and his recent appearance at Buckingham Palace showed this is clearly not confined to just the canvas. It’s not every day that Britons get invited to lunch at Buckingham Palace. Even fewer get invited on account of being members of the Order of Merit. That prestigious award is reserved for only the most talented individuals in the Commonwealth – there can only be 24 living members at one time. For those invited to Buckingham Palace to celebrate this achievement, the expectation is that they will come wearing better than their Sunday best. But David Hockney has always been one to flout expectations. The 85-year-old came to the Palace wearing not brogues or Oxford shoes – but yellow Crocs. The jaunty fashion choice added some extra cheer to the occasion.

David Hockney's shoes were as colorful as his paintings.

“Thank you for entertaining everybody for so many decades. Thank you for being the friend that you were for my mum.”

Prince Harry, The Duke of Sussex.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex joined a bevy of famous faces sending well-wishes to Elton John as he played his final North American tour date at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles last weekend. The pair appeared in a video message broadcast before the concert kicked off, in which Harry thanked the musician for being a friend to the family and entertaining the world for several decades. “Thank you for being our friend and thank you for being (a friend) to our kids and thank you for entertaining people right around the world,” the duke added.

HOUSEKEEPING

A heads up Royal News readers: Just a quick note to let you know that we’ll be covering the Prince and Princess of Wales’ trip to the US next week. That means next week’s edition could go out a little later than normal depending on how events unfold.

– Max & Lauren