Queen Elizabeth II and Nelson Mandela's 'warm friendship' grew from common sense of duty

The queen held a state banquet at Buckingham Palace in honour of the freedom fighter in 1996

Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa, with Queen Elizabeth II, pictured on his arrival at Buckingham Palace for a state banquet in his honour in 1996. PA
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Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II shared a "warm friendship" with South Africa's former president and civil rights advocate Nelson Mandela, his private secretary has said.

Zelda la Grange said the late monarch and the man considered the father of modern South Africa bonded over their common “sense of duty and service”.

Mandela was given the prestigious honour of travelling in the same horse-drawn royal carriage with the queen passing through the streets of London during his state visit in 1996. During a visit to Buckingham Palace he wore a suit before adopting his signature bright African-inspired shirts that helped defy the rigid royal strictures reserved for other dignitaries when meeting the queen.

The then-leader, who had spent 27 years in prison and negotiated the end of apartheid in a divided South Africa, made the monarch feel so comfortable in his presence that she cracked a joke about her weight during their meeting in the palace.

"They had a very warm friendship," Ms la Grange, Mandela's private secretary from 1994 to 2013, said.

"They shared the sense of duty, the sense of service and a calling that they adhered to throughout their lives, and there was a deep respect between the two of them and I think that was the basis of the connection between the two people, having an appreciation for tradition within their own nations.”

During the first years as South Africa’s first democratically elected president, Mandela cultivated a close relationship with the queen and hosted her and Prince Phillip in the Rainbow Nation.

Ms La Grange said one instance that stands out in her mind is a meeting in Buckingham Palace when Mandela’s “wicked sense of humour” surfaced.

“He walked up to the queen and when he saw her he said ‘Elizabeth, you’ve lost weight!’ and the queen burst out laughing,” she said.

“I think he was the only person in the world who could comment on the queen’s weight and get away with it.”

Ms La Grange previously said it was amusing to see how the pair used each other’s first names when in conversation.

"When he paid visits to Queen Elizabeth, it was always very entertaining to see their interaction, because he called her Elizabeth…no one else in the world, I think, calls her Elizabeth,” she said.

Mandela also had a special name for the queen – Motlalepul - which means to come with rain and was given as a token of "our affection to Her Majesty" said the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

Explaining what it meant to the then Prince Charles, now King Charles III, at a banquet in his honour in 1997, Mandela said the name was conferred on the queen because her visit to South Africa two years earlier had coincided with torrential rains that South Africa had not experienced in a long time.

Updated: September 12, 2022, 8:48 AM