Staff announcement: will the President come to Checkout One

Tom Peck joins Jacob Zuma on his historic visit – to Sainsbury's in Greenwich

Sandwiched between a morning at Downing Street and an afternoon at Wembley, this was to be just a normal, everyday trip to the supermarket: send the surveillance helicopter on ahead, park the high commission's Bentley out front, nip past the screaming primary-school children and all of a sudden you find yourself in the ready-meals aisle.

Much has been made of the state visit of the South African President Jacob Zuma, a man whose leadership of the Rainbow Nation has rarely passed without incident. This, though – the first ever trip to a UK supermarket by a visiting head of state – would surely be an innocuous enough affair?

Zuma's people, we were told, had specifically requested a trip to Sainsbury's flagship green supermarket in south-east London, which had been packed chock-full – for the day at least – of Fairtrade produce from the Cape. "South Africa is a land with lots of wind and sunlight," explained Sainsbury's chief executive, Justin King. The President was apparently keen to learn all about the pioneering solar-sensitive lighting and cold air recycling at the store in north Greenwich.

If the husband of three and father of 20 (that's Zuma, not King) was disappointed when his guide for the day, Hilary Benn, turned out to be a chap, he did not show it as the Environment Secretary guided him deftly past the shelves of prophylactics, and towards the hake fillets. Mr Zuma's wife, Thobeka Madiba, and entourage followed behind.

"The fish is sustainably sourced from a fishery in South Africa," King explained to the President. "It's certified by the Marine Stewardship Council." It did not perhaps look as appetising as the Pavé de Saumon Glamis served at the previous evening's state banquet – but it was still the Be Good To Yourself range.

Benn, meanwhile, had spotted a young mother and child oblivious to the growing fuss, and he sloped off for a quick gladhand by the chilled dairy. "Hello, how are you?" he asked.

"I'm Susan. Who are you?"

"Erm, I'm with the err... Sorry, you'll have to excuse me." Benn fled to join the touring party, leaving Susan to focus again on the yoghurts.

Zuma, King, Benn et al disappeared out the back doors to see the store's very own nature reserve. The President paused, utterly bemused, to inspect two old men in waders who were dredging the bottom of a pond. "The rainwater is recycled for use in the carwash!" chuntered King.

Tour complete, it was time for that most perilous stage of any diplomatic visit: the offering of a gift. Commemorative Jacob's Cream Crackers perhaps? A limited-edition Fairtrade "satzuma"? No. A Sport Relief T-shirt, with Beckham on the front and "PRESIDENT ZUMA" in block capitals on the back. They hoped he would wear it at Wembley, where Mr President was booked in to take a penalty in front of the assembled snappers.

And that was that.

Twenty-five minutes from start to finish, there hadn't even been time to use the presidential Nectar card.

Zuma hopped back in the Bentley – leaving Hilary Benn inside explaining to a bemused store manager the finer points of the effects of warmer winters on the Cape microclimate – and the security helicopter banked left over the Millennium Dome.

Next stop, the Olympic building site, where somebody would have to broach the topic of this alpha male consenting to wear a protective hard hat.

Zuma left quite an impression on the schoolchildren of south-east London. "It was amazing! He was amazing!" beamed Amira, eight, from the local Millennium Primary School. Her friend Mataya added: "You know he has 20 children. If I was a Zuma I would never be able to look after so much kids."

A downbeat Jessica, also eight, had other things on her mind. "When is the Jamie Oliver food coming? They said we could try Jamie Oliver food. My mum had to sign a permission slip and everything."

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