When King George VI arrived at Cape Town Harbour in 1947 at the start of his royal tour of the country, he disembarked the HMS Vanguard wearing a loose-fitting white uniform of the admiral of the fleet. Together with his family, which included his daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth, he was adulated at many points of his trip.
For his whistle-stop tour of Cape Town this past weekend, the final leg on his three-day visit to South Africa, Prince Charles, Prince of Wales and grandson of that famously stammering king, wore a grey double-breasted suit with a light-blue shirt and dark tie.
The official trip commenced with the prince’s arrival at Waterkloof Airbase in Pretoria on Wednesday and was a low-key affair.
In South Africa at the personal invitation of President Jacob Zuma, the prince used the opportunity to discuss trade and investment, unemployment and sustainability issues, also visit fellow royals, listen to a choir and attend a tree-planting ceremony.
On the eve of COP17, the UN climate change conference due to be held later this month in Durban, the prince, who has routinely treated climate change sceptics to his royal brickbat, also used the visit as an opportunity to deliver an impactful speech on the subject at the University of Cape Town.
The grey suit he selected for the occasion became a talking point in Khayelitsha, where Britain’s longest serving regent-in-waiting made a brief stopover in Kuyasa, a neighbourhood notable for its jagged skyline of Kyoto Protocol-friendly solar-heated geysers.
The unannounced Khayelitsha detour followed directly on his speech, preceded a business meeting at the Anglo American-owned wine estate Vergelegen in Somerset West.
Khayelitsha residents viewed the royal entourage, complete with hawkish minders and photojournalists, with mild curiosity verging on disinterest.
When asked if fruit vendor Art Mzendana (23) knew the who the figure in grey was, he said: “When I first saw him I knew it was Prince Charles. I’ve read about him and seen him on TV but this is the first time to see him face to face.
Fellow resident Bukelwa Shude, a 36-year-old mother of two, was had no idea who Prince Charles was.
I asked Mzendana what brand of suit he thought the prince was wearing.
“That was an expensive suit but I didn’t look at the name,” he said. “I wouldn’t think Dolce & Gabbana.”
In Johannesburg, the prince and his wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, visited Freedom Square in Soweto and met Graça Machel at the Nelson Mandela Foundation.
Their next stop was Ulundi to meet with the reigning Zulu monarch Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu and Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi.
Buthelezi was among the dignitaries seated in Jameson Hall to hear Prince Charles deliver his speech on climate change.
Seated on the opposite side of the hall from Buthelezi, was 86-year-old Colin Eglin, former leader of the Progressive Federal Party. He was warmly greeted by Western Cape premier Helen Zille, who wore a ruffled knee-length fuchsia coat made by a fashion designer in Elsies River.
Historically, the University of Cape Town has a close relationship with the royal family. Before he was crowned King Edward VIII in 1936, Edward, Prince of Wales, was the first chancellor of the university (1918 – 1936).
During the royal visit in 1947, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, wife of King George VI — who succeeded to the throne when Edward abdicated in favour of marrying an American divorcee — received an honorary doctorate in Jameson Hall. According to historian Howard Phillips, UCT students exhibited “rapture verging on heroine worship”.
In 2011, gone is the rapture, royal worship having transformed into something akin to celebrity ogling. When the prince entered the hall, sans his wife, even the gallery of VIPs saluted the grey-suited royal with their cellphones rather than loud cheers.
Eschewing broad strokes, the prince spoke at length about the minutia of sustainability. His first major topic of pause was the global fishing industry, which he said supports about 560-million people.
He said that marine resources are “over-exploited” and “close to collapse”, adding that there was a broad consensus among various parties in implementing an ecosystem-based approach towards the management of fisheries, and to ensuring proper governance and rethinking the economics of fisheries.
His observations were buttressed by insight: earlier that day the prince briefly visited a hake trawler in Cape Town harbour. He also witnessed a group of local businessmen — “A cartel?” the prince jovially enquired — recommit themselves to the terms of the Responsible Fishing Alliance, an action group to promote responsible fishing launched in 2010.
In his UCT speech the prince also took up the cause of Africa’s peasant farmers. After warning against the “risks” posed by hedge funds and speculators buying up large tracts of agricultural land in Africa, he stated: “I do not see small farmers as backward relics of the past. In fact, I see them as an utterly crucial cornerstone of the future.”
“They are very important people,” concurred Mzendana, who buys his fruit at Epping Market, when I later recounted the prince’s speech in Khayelitsha.
On the steps of Jameson Hall, opinion was similarly upbeat.
“It was a very good speech,” said Helen Zille, “especially looking at the challenges of access to land and land acquisition, the pressures of the land, and the threat to biodiversity and implications for climate change. I thought it was very powerful.”
Andre van der Merwe, a 25-year-old civil engineering student, agreed.
“I didn’t expect him to be that involved — he has done his research,” said Van der Merwe, who for a moment worried that his jeans and sweater might not meet the advertised dress code (smart-casual). “I don’t really know how royals work or what they do, but I was impressed that he was up-to-date.”
Natasha Meyer (23), a social anthropology student and friend of Van der Merwe, came because of her interest in climate issues. “I haven’t read up much on COP17, so I was keen here someone’s take on it,” she said. “I thought what was cool about his talk was that he spoke about the importance of small-scale stuff.”
Responding to a question whether either student had snapped a picture of the royal visitor for their Facebook page, the engineer responded: “I am not that kind of person.”
Wilfred Esau, captain of the I&J-owned hake trawler Foxglove, is that kind of person. During a royal inspection of his boat, which included some discussion on the ecologically-sensitive issue of by-catch, Esau, an amateur photographer and bird lover, snapped some furtive pictures of the prince from the bridge.
“I’m going to put them on Facebook,” he quipped. “I feel so royal today.”