Welsh Guards play Zulu film music during South African president's state visit to UK

Eyebrows raised at choice of music before Cyril Ramaphosa arrived to meet King Charles

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King Charles III welcomed South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa to Horse Guards Parade in central London with all the pomp and ceremony that comes with a state visit, his first as monarch.

While he stood in the royal pavilion awaiting his guest, he listened to the music played by the Band of the Welsh Guards.

He may have been surprised, though, when the band played Men of Harlech, a military match said to describe events during the siege of Harlech Castle in north Wales in the 15th century but better known as the song sung in the 1964 film Zulu by British troops rallying themselves as they prepared to defend their position at Rorke's Drift against thousands of African warriors.

The choice of song did not go unnoticed. Commentating on the state visit on Sky News, Alastair Bruce suggested it may have been a nod to Wales's performance in the World Cup the previous evening, when they came back to draw against the USA.

Other viewers were less convinced, and took to social media to offer their thoughts.

"Couldn't believe my ears ... remember the music in Zulu ... I wonder what they were trying to say choosing that for a South Africa leader," wrote one Twitter user.

Another suggested the Foreign Office may have been unaware of the song's part in film history.

Another said it was fortunate Bruce had chosen to concentrate on the football rather than the link to the film.

The music had moved on by the time of Mr Ramaphosa's arrival, with the South African national anthem ringing out as he met the king.

Mr Ramaphosa, who comes from Soweto, is not Zulu but his predecessor Jacob Zuma is from that background.

The South African President was beginning a two-day state visit to the UK.

Also gathered in the royal pavilion for the ceremonial welcome were Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and senior members of the Cabinet, as well as the Lord Mayor of London, Nicholas Lyons, and the Defence Chiefs of Staff.

The Prince and Princess of Wales were part of events, travelling to Mr Ramaphosa’s luxury hotel in central London and accompanying him to Horse Guards Parade for the start of the ceremonial welcome.

More than 1,000 soldiers and 230 horses took part in the ceremonial event and waiting on the parade ground were two immaculate lines of Foot Guards from Number 7 Company The Coldstream Guards.

Nearby in their gleaming breast plates and plumed helmets were the Sovereign’s Escort of the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment – Life Guards and Blues and Royals, commanded by Major Robert Perera of the Blues and Royals.

Former US president Donald Trump’s state visit in 2019 was the most recent by a world leader but his welcome was staged in the gardens of Buckingham Palace, so the official visit by King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands in 2019 was the last time a full ceremonial welcome was staged at Horse Guards Parade.

Lieutenant Colonel James Shaw, Brigade Major of Headquarters Household Division, who delivered the military ceremonial spectacle, said: “The state visit is a historic first: our first state visit for his majesty the king and the President of South Africa, the first state visit in London since 2019, the first processional state visit on Horse Guards since 2018 and the first for almost everyone on parade.

"A huge amount of work has gone into preparing for the visit and we are very proud to support such an important national occasion.”

The visit was marked by the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announcing the UK and South Africa would join forces to “turbocharge infrastructure investment and economic growth together”.

The next phase of the UK-South Africa Infrastructure Partnership is being launched on Tuesday, supporting South Africa’s economic growth through major infrastructure developments and offering wider access to UK companies to projects worth up to £5.37 billion over the next three years, Downing Street said.

There was said to have been much excitement and anticipation at Buckingham Palace as the royal household prepared for the first state visit since 2019 but the reservicing work at the royal residence meant the South African leader could not stay at the London landmark.

Work for the South African state visit began during the late Queen Elizabeth’s reign and King Charles was said to have been delighted to continue with the plans.

The pomp and ceremony began as soon as the president’s motorcade first arrived at Horse Guards Parade with the King’s Life Guard, positioned on Whitehall, giving a salute.

Mr Ramaphosa’s limousine crossed the open space overlooked by Wellington’s former office and as he stepped on to the royal pavilion to be greeted by the king, gun salutes were fired across London.

In nearby Green Park, 41 volleys were fired by the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery and 62 were fired at the Tower of London by the Honourable Artillery Company — an extra 21 for the City of London.

The Captain of the Guard of Honour, Major Andrew Dickinson of Number 7 Company The Coldstream Guards, marched forward and asked the South African President: “The Guard of Honour from Number 7 Company Coldstream Guards is formed up and awaiting your inspection. May I have your permission to accompany you, Sir, please?”

Mr Ramaphosa was joined by the king as he cast his eye over the troops walking a few steps behind his guest as he inspected the soldiers.

Updated: November 22, 2022, 4:29 PM