As his Rolls Royce swung into Horse Guards Parade for the formal welcome at the start of the South African president's state visit to Britain, more than 6,000 spectators waving the flag of his rainbow nation cheered, screamed and chanted in a manner never witnessed before at the arrival of a foreign leader. It seemed appropriate that the band of the Irish Guards played the theme from Star Wars.
The many children in the crowd, waving hand-drawn flags and posters, kept up the chants of "Nel-son, Nel-son" as he was greeted by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. They continued even as the 78-year-old president, moving stiffly, inspected the guard of honour. On the dais, John Major must have wished he could provoke such adulation.
"When Jacques Chirac came last month, there were a couple of thousand here, no more," said a veteran of such occasions. "As for the noise, I have never heard anything like it."
"I confess to being something of an Anglophile," Mr Mandela says in his autobiography. "When I thought of Western democracy and freedom, I thought of the British parliamentary system. In so many ways, the very model of the gentleman for me was an Englishman." He visited England for 10 days in 1962, while on the run from the white government in South Africa; now he is back as president.
The cacophony did not lend itself to reflection about the symbolic importance of the occasion: about how Mr Mandela had travelled from breaking rocks on Robben Island to being a guest at Buckingham Palace, an honour never accorded to any of his white predecessors. That moment came only during the playing of South Africa's two anthems, first the Xhosa hymn Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika (God Bless Africa), then the Afrikaans anthem, ]Die Stem (The Voice). As a group of black children in the crowd sang the Xhosa supplication, there were tears among many spectators who had fled South Africa in the apartheid years and settled in Britain. Morris Mohlala, 48, exiled in 1983, had brought his 24-year-old niece, Gloria Alfred, from Cape Town, to watch. "What do I hope for from this? I hope there will be lots of investment in South Africa, and that people won't concentrate so much on the crime issue," he said. Mr Mandela's chance to appeal for trade and investment will come today at a business conference in London.
Under apartheid Mr Moh-lala would have been classified as black and his niece as "Coloured" (mixed-race). "But we're just one happy rainbow nation now," said Ms Alfred. She clung to a railing on the Mall to ensure that she could see Mr Mandela and the Queen pass in an open carriage.
Last night there was a state banquet at Buckingham Palace for Mr Mandela and his daughter, Zenani, but the president, who has retained the habit of rising early from his prison days, will be planting a tree in St James's Park at 7.30am today. Tomorrow he will address a joint session of Parliament and receive eight honorary degrees, but he has singled out the visit he will make to Brixton in south London on Friday, saying he wanted to thank all those who backed his fight against apartheid.
The South African exiles in yesterday's crowd, however, wanted to thank Mr Mandela. Sally Smith was standing at the front in a Springbok rugby shirt - "and if you had told me that one day I would be wearing this, I would never have believed it". She was brought to Britain in 1977 by her mother, Margaret, a journalist who had fallen foul of the government.
"I'm going to cry today," was all Margaret could say, but her daughter spoke for her. "We came here when people hated everything South African. I've been here so long that I don't know which country I belong in any more, but today I feel very proud to be South African."Reuse content