By Paul Cainer.
I’m tempted to say: I spent large chunks of time in the Royal bed. But that might be a little misleading.
Actually, I slept on a mattress embroidered with a huge Royal Crown. My father’s first job after emigrating to South Africa from England in 1946, was to be the accountant of the Airflex mattress company, and when there was to be a Royal Visit the factory was commissioned to make luxurious mattresses for the King, the Queen and two princesses, visiting their South African dominion.
After their sojourn in Cape Town, one of those mattresses somehow ended up as my bed throughout my schoolyears.- and very elegant it was too. I tried this week to call Airflex in Cape Town to check if indeed my father had been given it, or had he, er, liberated it (that’s the post-apartheid term for stealing. Alas, the phone just buzzes, and the email address doesn’t work.
In retrospect, my childhood’s Crowned mattress symbolised the fierce loyalty most English-speaking South Africans felt towards Royalty, and indeed to Britain. The majority of English-speakers in the 1960s looked to Britain and the Queeen as protector not only of black civil rights but also their own. Since 1948, less than two years after the Royal Visit, the country had been ruled by hardline nationaolist white Afrikaners, which had nurtured some hardliner groups that favoured Hitler, including the notrouous Ossewabrandwag (Ox-wagon Fire Guards), of which the apartheid era’s toughest president, John Vorster, had been a leading youth member.
Afrikaners had risen to power in 1948 and South Africa was pressured out of the Commonwealth in 1960 and declared itself a republic, thereby diminishing any potential British or Royal protection for ethnic minorities — and majorities. Yet South African courts and judges bravely used English law civil liberty guarantees to minimise the draconian laws against dissent that Parliament imposed. “Freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are part of the democratic rights of every citizen,” a high court judge ruled in freeing my protesting fellow-students and myself in 1972. He found my protesting fellow-students and myself not guilty of ‘riotous assembly’.
We left-wing Jewish students pointed out in leaflets quoting Isiah who said that the fast and repentance God wanted was to vow to break the chains of bondage for all people. This messge was not universally welcomed.
Many students chose to vote with their feet, and emigrate from what was basically a paradise, and almost all my university law class of 1976, including me, now live outside the country. Partly that was a general worry about likely civil war (which never happened), but largely it was because we felt unable to live in a country with the immoral enforcement of apartheid. Finally in some cases young whites left because of black majority misrule after the Mandela era ended.
The Royal family (and Peter Townsend, far right) outside Government House where they slept.
After their sojourn in Cape Town, one of those mattresses somehow ended up becoming my bed – and very comfortable it was too – throughout my school-years. I tried last week to call and email Airflex in Cape Town to find out how it had come into our possession. Alas, it seems to be too late to find out: the phone just buzzes and the email address doesn’t work.
When I was 23 and an anti-apartheid activist I had to leave South Africa rapidly. I now look back on my childhood’s nightly Royal resting place, so to speak, as a harbinger of my seeking refuge from the apartheid regime in the Queen’s country, Britain. Even though our first loyalty was to our country of birth, English-speaking South Africans felt bonded with Royalty, and indeed to Britain.
Interestingly and significantly, Nelson Mandela was a good friend of Britain. Our country’s great leader forged a close relationship with the Queen – against protocol, they called each other by their first names.
South Africa re-joined the Commonwealth, and we hoped the example of Britain, a democratic state, would have some impact on South Africa’s current rulers. Mandela, Mbeki and Zuma have had Royal Visits to Britian, and President Cyril Ramaphosa is due another one this November. But unfortunately for my countrymen and countrywomen the Royal crown (on my bed or in the wider world) carries little weight in the new South Africa.