Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

In Which I Gate-Crash History


For a while, in between being a real journalist and a corporate one, I worked as an assistant to a fundraiser. One of our customers was Outward Bound, the experiential outdoor learning programme started by Kurt Hahn, the founder of Gordonstoun School. Of all our customers, Outward Bound was my favourite, not least because of all the fit instructors with intriguing Antipodean accents who liked to go around shirtless, but also because of the goals the newly-started Outward Bound organisation had in South Africa. It planned to offer courses to disaffected township youth, kids who had been the final beneficiaries of the iniquitously substandard apartheid education, who were starting to become known as the “lost generation”. Outward Bound hoped to teach them skills, self-confidence and the ability to recognise their own potential, so that they wouldn’t become lost but would find a way to rejoin society.

1994 was a stunning year for South Africa: we had the first nonracial election where black and white people queued up together to vote, Nelson Mandela was voted in as president and the transitional government began working together and writing the new Constitution. World leaders and dignitaries from 140 countries attended Mandela’s inauguration, including Prince Phillip, international patron of Outward Bound and the third pupil to have attended Hahn’s Gordonstoun school. We decided to hold a fundraiser, get the Prince to attend and speak, invite businesspeople and hopefully raise a ton of money for our customer.

The fundraiser was set – it was to be a lunch held in Cape Town at the posher than posh Mount Nelson Hotel. The other star guest was Steve Tshwete, South Africa’s newly appointed minister for sport, an ANC stalwart who had been a leader in the armed resistance (MK), had spent 15 years on Robben Island and was a sport fanatic. The Prince was also engaged to turn up, press hands and say a few choice words about Outward Bound. I managed to squeeze myself onto the list too. I think my boss would have preferred me to stay in Johannesburg and woman the phones in her absence, but I fluttered my eyelashes at a couple of Antipodeans and scored an invite. Garbed in a lovely new purple suit bedecked with a gazillion shiny gold buttons (you have to forgive me, it was the 90s, and my shoes were gold too), I flew with my boss to Cape Town. Off to meet a Prince.

A small administrative error meant we had set the fundraiser on the same day that the transitional government were meeting for the very first time at Parliament in Cape Town. However, Steve Tshwete or one of his army of assistants assured us that after the morning session, he would cover the short distance from Parliament to the Mount Nelson and be there in time to welcome the Prince. We believed him.

After hearing that Prince Phillip was on his way, and there was still no Mr Tshwete in sight, my boss fixed me with a gimlet eye and said, with shades of Miranda Priestly, “Charlotte, go and fetch him.” I mentally looked around to see if there was anyone of smaller consequence than myself to whom I could pass on the job, but no, I was the kippie, and I had to go and fetch the Minister of Sport. So I hoisted my purple skirt, and slipping around nicely in my gold brogues, ran down Government Avenue. All around me, people were enjoying the warm autumn sunshine in the Company Gardens and squirrels were chittering happily in the oak trees. But I was on Mission Uncomfortable.

When I got to the Parliament Buildings all was quiet. I told a guard, “I’m here to fetch Mr Tshwete” and he seemed to think that was a good enough reason to let me in, despite my sweaty and dishevelled purple  demeanour. I stood around in the empty courtyard for a while, wondering what my next step would be. I couldn’t just burst into Parliament and remove Steve Tshwete from the session, even though a Prince was waiting for him. Just then the huge doors were flung open. Parliament was over. There was me and there were all the luminaries of South Africa’s new government, ululating, singing, hugging, crying with joy. They were celebrating their triumph right in front of my eyes. These people had fought their whole lives for this moment, lost family and friends to the struggle against apartheid, and I was witness to their joy.

I pushed through the crowd and found Steve Tshwete just inside the building, where he was hugging some comrades with tears streaming down his face. I tapped him on the shoulder. “Mr Tshwete, I’m Charlotte,” I said. “I’m from Outward Bound and I’m here to fetch you to come and meet Prince Phillip.”

He enveloped me in a huge hug and then looked sincerely into my eyes. “Charlotte, dear Charlotte. Tell the Prince I’m not coming.”

So I ran back up Government Avenue to the Mount Nelson, sweatily relayed the news to my boss that Steve Tshwete was going to have a major party with his comrades and would not be available to glad-hand Prince Phillip. Shortly afterwards, his eminence arrived. I stood in line and received a limp little handshake, and then sat and listened to him say some not very memorable words on behalf of Outward Bound. My mother-in-law, who is British and a proud monarchist, now has a photograph of me and Prince Phillip on her mantelpiece. I don’t. But what I do have is a big hug from one of South Africa’s heroes (sadly now fallen) on the first day of the first meeting of my country’s new government. To me, that’s a million times better than meeting a Prince.

Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

17 thoughts on “In Which I Gate-Crash History

  1. Now that is a truly great story. Shame there’s not a picture of you and the purple dress to accompany it though. Or just the dress?

  2. What an amazing experience! Royals are always kind of disappointing in person (though a friend of mine has some nice things to say about Prince Charles).

  3. Wow a proud South African moment to remember – far more history making than shaking hands with royalty (which if not a two a penny experience is at least a two a pound one.. mine was Princess Anne, when she opened our school’s new art centre and I was proudly turning a wooden bowl on a lathe. The incongruous sight of our extremely tall Headmaster escorting her from her helicopter on the playing field is one that lives on in my photo album).

    I like the purple and gold blur of you running through the squirrels in Company Gardens!

  4. What a great story. I have such a picture of you with your gold buttons and shoes — and how wonderful to have experienced history.

  5. Great story! I’d have loved to have been there 🙂

  6. Charlotte, You are a great story teller. Very vivid. I just found your blog yesterday and have enjoyed reading it thus far. Thanks!

  7. That purple suit with the gold buttons has certainly caught your collective eyes – I’ll have to hunt down a photo for you, but you may be blinded by the bling of my buttons.

  8. Wow (the story and the suit). Very evocative… And I would LOVE to see a picture!!!

  9. Wow wow wow wow wow! And that’s just for the colour of your suit 🙂 Sorry, I’m a sucker for anything purple…

    What an amazing moment to have witnessed and be a part of. After that, anything would have seemed anti-climatic.

  10. I love the “limp little handshake” vs. the “huge hug.” Can’t blame Prince Phillip for having a bit less to be excited about than Steve Tshwete though.

  11. Wonderful story, Charlotte! I’m afraid Prince Phillip is regarded as the lowest form of pond life amongst the Royals. He’s always putting his foot in it, or failing to even be basically polite. Your Mr Tshwete sounds like a delight!

  12. I have to say there was no comparison between the two, but to be fair to Prince Phillip, he’s probably shaken millions of hands and Steve Tshwete was new to being in the limelight. So it was easy for him to be sincere.

    I’ve got to hunt out a photo of The Suit …

  13. Wow, what an incredible moment Charlotte – your children will love hearing about that when they’re older (if they don’t already, of course!)

  14. What a delicious story!

  15. That’s a memory to treasure — especially when you’re having one of those dreary, blue days, and nothing seems to be going right. Something nice to savor.

  16. what a day! you must have felt like pinching yourself at least 20 times.

  17. Nice, Charlotte
    – read it slowly, totally saw it, utterly enjoyed it – no need for ‘glossy reading’ with writers like you around!

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