/ 4 March 2010

Queen’s banquet for Zuma: Wine, women and bagpipes

Perhaps the royal party planners thought they would have things in common: whether by accident or design, President Jacob Zuma was seated next to Camilla Parker Bowles, once Prince Charles’ controversial mistress during his marriage to Diana and now his wife, at the lavish banquet given in Zuma’s honour by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace on Wednesday evening.

Putting aside his anger at the scathing publicity that has dogged him in the Brit tabloids since his arrival on a state visit to the UK on Tuesday, the president looked relaxed as he arrived at the banquet with Tobeka on his arm.

Practically the entire royal family was present, including all the queen’s sons, her daughter, Princess Anne and her husband Prince Philip. Prime Minister Gordon Brown was there, along with half the British Cabinet too.

Prominent South Africans who attended included the 12 Cabinet ministers in Zuma’s official delegation, plus a sprinkling of homegrown personalities in their fields. They included footballer Aaron Mokoena, Bafana Bafana skipper and a midfielder for Portsmouth; Sir Sydney Kentridge, QC, a member of the English bar and father of the artist William Kentridge and Danny Jordaan, CEO of the 2010 Local Organising Committee.

The queen, who sat on Zuma’s other side, made a short, sweet speech – mostly singing the praises of former president Nelson Mandela and the upcoming Soccer World Cup. She also waxed nostalgic about her visit to South Africa as a young princess in 1947, saying how much she had enjoyed the country and its people.

Zuma’s speech, according to guests at the banquet, was more of a ‘box ticker” than anything to write, er, home about. He talked about the ties that bound South Africa and the UK, with an emphasis on trade and mutual population migration. He steered clear of repeating his remarks of the day before when he had accused Britons of continuing to think of black Africans as ‘barbaric” and ‘inferior”.

There was nothing inferior about the dinner laid on for him at the palace, and guests who spoke to members of the royal family described them as perfect hosts and who made ‘everyone feel welcome and included”.

The u-shaped table sparkled with huge bowls of fruit, spring flowers, silverware and six glasses per guest — causing some confusion about what each one was for. Guests dined on a salmon starter followed by lamb noisettes. After dessert, they were treated to a Royal Vintage Port, laid down in 1963 to celebrate the birth of the queen’s youngest son, Prince Edward. Pol Roger champagne flowed throughout the evening.

There was music throughout the evening, including a traditional performance on one of the queen’s favourite instruments — the Scottish bagpipes. The pipe band played and slow marched around the ballroom, bringing tears to some eyes but causing other guests to wondering if it would be rude to block their ears.

The banquet was run with clockwork precision. Guests in evening dress formed a queue to meet the queen and Prince Philip along the red carpeted staircase to the ballroom promptly at 7.50pm. On the stroke of 11pm, the royal family and president Zuma’s entourage left the party. But the 200-odd guests were invited to stay on and enjoy themselves. More vintage port all round.