/ 12 September 2022

The Queen was my mother’s style icon, but my dad wasn’t a fan

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Queen Elizabeth II puts on lipstick in the Royal Box at the Windsor Horse Show on May 11, 1985. Prince Phillip was about to enter the dressage ring with his horse team. (David Levenson/Getty Images)

The Queen was my mother’s style icon. I don’t mean the Norman Hartnell outfits she favoured for easy visibility in a crowd; frocks, dresscoats and hats in magenta, lime green, buttercup yellow, cerise, tangerine … the diminutive queen’s motto: I have to be seen to be believed. 

No, my mother preferred the Queen’s more casual wear, the summer holiday wardrobe she chose for downtime at Balmoral Castle in Scotland: tweed skirts and jackets, no-frill blouses and sensible shoes.

It was not where the similarity ended.

My mother loved dogs. We got from the pound, not corgis but often battered hounds (they call them rescue dogs these days). I suppose if we’d had access to them, she’d have loved horses too.

Like Queen Elizabeth II, my mother’s first allegiance was to God, then family, and then everyone and everything else. She, too, had an unshakeable sense of duty, a steadfastness rooted in religion and a belief, too, that time healed wounds if you just let it. 

On 4 November 2000, while I was on a flight to New York, my mother had a massive heart attack and died. Her death was unexpected: she was just 76 years old. I was bereft.

I came undone again at the news of the death of the Queen.

It was curious grief, gut-wrenching sadness at the passing of a woman I did not know and had never met – though I did stand close to her at Royal Ascot when, as a foreign correspondent, I was invited into the royal enclosure.

From watching the global outpouring of grief expressed at the end of an unblemished life of service, it seems that I am not alone in my bewildering response to her death.

I must qualify that: certainly, not all people are mourning; in fact, there has been a surfeit of gibes and mocking social media posts that are shockingly disrespectful.

Like me, people are wondering at the root of this inexplicably personal sorrow. I think it’s like saying goodbye to an institution that has made you feel safe all your life; there is a sense of loss and displacement.

The Queen had been on the throne for 70 years. She was the one constant in a constantly changing world that speeds up exponentially every year. She’s sworn in 15 British prime ministers – starting with Winston Churchill and ending with Liz Truss. She’s met and hosted 14 United States presidents. She’s seen off seven popes. She is the link to my parents and grandparents.

The new British prime minister, Truss, called her “the rock on which modern Britain was built”. I think not just modern Britain, but many of the countries within her beloved Commonwealth. Even those who no longer want a British monarch as their head of state and who want to break ties with the mother ship appear to be in mourning.

There are (some valid) republican views where people think that the monarchy is an archaic institution that has no place in the modern world. A constitutional crisis is expected in the United Kingdom where King Charles III, certainly not as popular as his mother was, will have to make a case, over and over again in the coming years, as to why the monarchy should continue. 

But that is for a future column.

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh visit the Solomon Islands during a tour of the South Pacific in October, 1982. (Anwar Hussein/Getty Images)

Of course, there are conversations to be had about colonialism, and about some of the shocking things done within the British empire – which was composed of the dominions, colonies, protectorates, mandates and territories ruled by the United Kingdom.

Shifting the empire to the Commonwealth might have been acceptable once, but the politics of today are very different.

Many citizens of Jamaica, a member of the Commonwealth that now has Charles III as its king, made it patently clear during a 2022 visit by the young royals, William and Catherine, now the new Prince and Princess of Wales, that they were not enamoured to have a British monarch as their titular head of state.

Britain’s history is steeped in blood. Indians remember the dark days of partition, when India was divided into two independent dominions: India and Pakistan literally by drawing a line on a map. It led, in August 1947, to 15 million Indians forced to flee from one side of a new border to the other in what is still the greatest migration the world has seen.

Nineteen forty-seven was a momentous year – for the Queen and for my father. It was the year the royal family visited South Africa; the year Queen Elizabeth II turned 21; the year my father found his political voice. She was born in 1926; my lovely dad in 1923: he was 24 years old to her 21.

It was the year she made that impassioned, much-quoted speech in April, in Cape Town: “I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.”

Just weeks before, she’d visited Durban – home to my father whose sympathies lay with the Mahatma Gandhi-founded Natal Indian Congress (NIC), convened to fight discrimination against Indians.

The NIC encouraged a boycott of the royal visit, a campaign that began when the visit was announced in late 1946. My dad remembered the passive resistance campaign that was to highlight the 1946 Asiatic Land Tenure and Indian Representation Act – the “Ghetto Act” as it was called – that stopped Indians from owning land in white areas. 

The call to boycott was largely unheeded; my father remembered members of his family and most of his neighbourhood turning up to see the procession.

Apparently, my Aunty Baby, the same age as Princess Elizabeth, was resplendent in an olive green sari as she waved her Union Jack – much to the chagrin of my dad. Indians had to strain to see the cavalcade – front-row views were reserved for pale-skinned boys with slicked back hair and blonde Shirley Temple-curl girls with mothers in hats and gloves with suited fathers sweating in the March heat.

My father was not a fan and never changed his mind about the royal family. Still, his criticism was intelligently academic and carefully thought through; his language respectful and his views pertinent rather than the knee–jerk–like ignorant comments from members of the Economic Freedom Fighters

In 1948, a year after the royal visit, apartheid was entrenched as a system of racial segregation. For historical accuracy, apartheid was not caused by colonialism; it was internal and linked to the Afrikaner-led National Party breaking away from the British empire. 

President Nelson Mandela understood that. In 1995, when he met with the monarch in a moment that will go down in history as extraordinarily special – there was no rancour. If anything, it was to say thank you to the Queen who, for the only time ever, went against her prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, who was dead set against imposing sanctions on apartheid South Africa in the 1980s, backing instead a Commonwealth call for sanctions against South Africa.

This is an extract from the London Sunday Times on 20 July 1986: “The Queen has been described in recent press reports as worried that Mrs Thatcher’s firm opposition to sanctions threatened to break up the 49-nation Commonwealth. The Queen reportedly also believes that Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative Party government lacks compassion and should be more caring towards less privileged members of society.”

So much has been said – over and over and over again – about the Queen’s sense of duty; of putting others first; of self-sacrifice and devotion to service. She signed herself Your Servant it must be remembered! 

Humility equals greatness; South African politicians could take a leaf out of her book.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, summed it up for me: “As we grieve together, we know that, in losing our beloved Queen, we have lost the person whose steadfast loyalty, service and humility have helped us make sense of who we are through decades of extraordinary change in our world, nation and society.”

Charmain Naidoo is a journalist and regular Thought Leader contributor

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.