A royal bunfight

2011-11-09 00:00

“SO, what was it like covering the royals?” my colleagues at The Witness asked on Monday. “Exhausting”, was my less than enthusiastic reply.

Undeterred they demanded: “Did you get to meet them?” The short answer to that is “No”. In fact, the chance of me being given the opportunity to curtsy and ask Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, how they were and if reports in the papers that William and Catherine might be presenting them with a grandchild were true, was about as likely as me winning the Lotto.

What I did do on a swelteringly hot day in Ulundi was to record a pretty formal event, during which speeches were made and the royal couple and King Goodwill Zwelithini exchanged gifts.

I was dripping with sweat, my writing arm was sticking to my notebook and I had people demanding e-mailed copies of the speeches. Not exactly glamorous ... but then I did have an inkling of what to expect.

I lived in Britain for eight-and-a-half years, and during that time was news editor of the Slough and Windsor Express. As we covered Windsor, Ascot, Eton, Slough in Berkshire and the southern parts of Buckinghamshire, we were often invited to cover royal events.

I covered visits by Prince Charles and Prince Andrew, Duke of York, to a school and community centre, respectively, and was assigned to follow Queen Elizabeth II down Slough High Street on the occasion of her Golden Jubilee. She — in case you were wondering — is really tiny in real life and Prince Philip is only around 1,8 metres tall. He just looks a lot taller when compared with the queen.

But I digress. There are very specific press protocols in place to ensure that the royals are not hampered in their duties by annoying news hounds. Reporters and photographers are required to keep their distance. Get close and you’ll have VIP protection to deal with.

As the royals work the crowd, you have to watch who they speak to and then make notes like “man in blue check shirt” and “woman in floral top”. Then, once the royal personage has moved on, you rush over to the recipient of their time and ask: “So, what did you and Prince Charles/Prince Andrew/the Queen talk about?” before noting down whatever gems they have to share.

In the meantime you’re trying to keep one eye on what the royals are up to so that you don’t miss them chatting to another of the chosen ones. It’s quite an art looking in two directions at once.

And then, once the royals have left and you’re sitting in your office filing the story, you cannot keep any of the comments you’ve gleaned for your exclusive use. Unless you wish to be banned from future royal events you have to share your copy and photos with the opposition. A tough call for any journalist.

On Friday last week, the South African press was given a taste of the rigours of British royal protocol in Ulundi and it didn’t go down well.

Only accredited press were supposed to have access to the event, but a number of journalists turned up with Premier Zweli Mkhize and thought they could simply do what they pleased. The Prince of Wales’s press secretary nearly had a heart attack.

I can still clearly see her standing in front of the palace doors, her arms outstretched to stop a particularly pushy group from bursting into a private meeting between King Goodwill Zwelithini and the British prince.

I think a few of the men thought they could bully this petite, young, black British woman, but she simply refused to give ground, and told those trying to get past: “I can’t go in, so why should you be allowed to?”

And if they were being annoying, the accredited press weren’t exactly happy campers either.

There was plenty of muttering about the fact that some journalists, including Ian Carbutt and myself, had been given coveted pool access. This meant that we were able to get a wee bit closer to the royal personages and were allowed into the marquee where the speeches were made and gifts exchanged. The downside was that — like in Britain — we would have to share everything with the rest of the world.

Those not in the pool demanded to know why British people were dictating to them, with one chap arguing that since King Goodwill is “our king”, the South African press should have been allowed to do what they wanted. The problem with this argument is that it dismisses the fact that Charles and Camilla are British and their press secretary has to ensure their happiness, not that of a bunch of crabby journos.

Watching this bunfight unfold in the sultry heat, while Zulu warriors sang traditional songs and cows wandered around a state-of-the-art white marquee, was a pretty surreal experience.

As the two different worlds I have inhabited during my career collided, I found myself being the go-to girl for British journalists who wanted to know what the Zulu warriors were wearing and why, and what weapons they were carrying. I felt a bit like a walking talking Wikipedia.

This was no garden party. It was hot, dusty and we didn’t even get offered a glass of water.

After the British visitors headed off to their next destination — the Phinda Game Reserve — Ian and I gulped down something cold and got cracking … deadlines wait for no one, not even royalty.

“So you didn’t get to curtsy then?” someone in the office quipped. Umm, no. Perhaps next time.

arts@witness.co.za

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