Jade Le Roux
News Editor
4 minute read
4 Jun 2022

Pietermaritzburg residents share fond memories of British royals

Jade Le Roux

With Queen Elizabeth II celebrating her platinum jubilee this week, ‘Weekend Witness’ tracked down some of the city’s more elderly residents who remember the day the queen came to town.

With Queen Elizabeth II celebrating her platinum jubilee this week, Weekend Witness tracked down some of the city’s more elderly residents who remember the day the queen came to town.

In 1947, the British Royal Family embarked on a three-month South African tour, coinciding with Queen (then Princess) Elizabeth’s 21st birthday, celebrated in Cape Town.

Being one of the country’s last British outposts, the royals paid a special visit to Pietermaritzburg — a cherished memory for many of the city’s elderly residents, who have lived through Queen Elizabeth II’s 70-year reign.

Zohra Buckus was just two years old when her family eagerly gathered at the Pietermaritzburg City Hall to witness the royal appearance.

She said: 

“I just remember it being a lot of fun. The atmosphere was euphoric. There was a function at the City Hall. Queen Elizabeth (princess at the time) was there, and her sister, Princess Margaret. We watched and waved at them.”

For Buckus, the memory of that event played a formative role in her keen interest and close following of the British Royal family.

“I used to write down all the news I heard about them, and kept scrapbooks of their pictures. I loved the royal family,” Buckus said.

Unfortunately, over the years her royal chronicles have been lost or destroyed.

Zohra Buckus
Zohra Buckus.

When Buckus was in Grade 2, she remembers watching Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in the cinema with her school.

Reflecting on the last 70 years, culminating in the queen’s platinum jubilee, Buckus said the royal visit to Pietermaritzburg has made her feel a special connection to the British monarch.

Howick resident Denise Jones (82), remembers her mother dressing her up in a white dress with blue and red rosettes and taking her to the Durban railway line where crowds waved at the royal family’s train as it arrived at the station.

Jones said: 

“I was seven at the time. We waved the Royal Family into the station and I saw the Royal Family in the carriage as it passed. There was a lot of excitement. The Royal Family coming to South Africa, especially then as we were under British rule, was a big thing.”

In 2016, on the occasion of Queen Elizabeth’s 90th birthday, retired local historian and former Pietermaritzburg Girls’ High School principal Dr Sylvia Vietzen told Weekend Witness of her royal encounter, back in Standard 5 (Grade 7) at Longmarket Street Girls’ Primary School.

“All the Pietermaritzburg schools gathered at the Oval, at Alexandra Park, where some sang in a composite choir, and many schools did Morris dances, each school making up a full circle of dancers. I was in the Longmarket Street School circle, and we learned and practised the dances for weeks.

“The Royal Family, King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret drove round the Oval, then sat in the grandstand to watch the dances and listen to the large choir.

“It was all so very colonial! After the event, we had a half-holiday and most of us spent it going to various spots in the city where [the royals] would be or where we could catch a glimpse or a wave as they drove past,” Vietzen said.

Five decades later, in 1995, the former mayor of Pietermaritzburg, Rob Haswell, had the pleasure of meeting Queen Elizabeth on the Royal Yacht Britannia at the Durban Harbour.

He told of his humorous, yet humiliating, experience — on greeting the queen, he accidentally almost fell at her feet.

Haswell said: 

“It was a privilege to receive a gold embossed invitation to attend a reception with Queen Elizabeth II and Nelson Mandela on board the royal yacht. It was a very special occasion, especially for my wife, Penny, who was an ardent follower of the Royal Family.”

“There are so many rules and things you are told to do, and not to do, and I was so nervous, trying so hard to remember to do everything right that I stumbled as I walked on board the yacht, almost falling at the feet of Queen Elizabeth, which was quite embarrassing.

“While the Queen looked at me strangely, Prince Philip, who was smiling broadly, obviously saw the humour in the situation and said, ‘So that is how you become an alderman,’ as that was what we were introduced as,” he said.