Nelson Mandela was not in Westminster Abbey to mark the event, having variously pleaded a state visit to Mozambique and recovery from an operation on an eye which cannot weep, due to injuries incurred while quarrying on Robben Island. That in itself held a peculiar poignancy, for one of the centrepieces of the service was a reading from Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country.
It was left to Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Thabo Mbeki, the First Deputy President, to add the new South African flag to those of the 50 other members of the Commonwealth. Archbishop Tutu credited both Mr Mandela and his predecessor, F W de Klerk, with bringing their country back into the fold of civilisation: 'The remarkable courage of De Klerk and the lack of bitterness of Mandela has finally brought our beloved country home, like the prodigal son,' he said in an exuberant address from the pulpit to a packed Abbey. Switching the gender of his country, he added: 'She is getting a right royal welcome, and I can only say 'wow'.' The Queen later joined the celebration at a garden party given by the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Chief Emeka Anyaoku.
There was some speculation that Mr Mandela had delivered a 'snub' to the Commonwealth, by opting to make his first state visit to Mozambique instead. This is unlikely, given the importance that both the President and the Commnwealth attach to the re-entry. It seems more logical that Mr Mandela, now aged 76, and who was operated on only last week, could not undertake the 12-hour flight to London.
It is also logical that Mr Mandela should make Mozambique and other frontline states a priority at this time. The uneasy truce in the civil war in Mozambique could fall apart at any time; the situation in Angola is even more alarming. Mr Mandela does not want the rest of Southern Africa to be seen as a belt of civil war zones. He hopes that his power-sharing government can serve as a model for both countries. In the Abbey, Archbishop Tutu described South Africa as 'a beacon of hope in a world of Bosnias, Somalias and Rwandas'.