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Pretoria's men are lost for words

MARGARET THATCHER did not come. Nor did any of her old guard. It was more of a rally with champagne than a diplomatic vin d'honneur, writes Annika Savill, Diplomatic Editor. John Smith, the leader of the Opposition, was hauled on to the podium to hail a great event not only for South Africa but for democracy throughout the world.

Nkosi Sikelel'i Afrika was sung by the hundreds of ANC flag-waving guests who had taken over the basement of South Africa House in Trafalgar Square. The ambassador, Kent Durr, did his best to put on a brave face, even though as a former National Party minister, property dealer and political appointee, he knows he will be leaving his post within the next few weeks. Members of the embassy staff tipped Aziz Pahad, an eloquent ANC lawyer of Asian extraction, as Mr Durr's successor.

Many of the white embassy staff sat out the singing of the new anthem, joking that they had been sent on a crash course to learn the lyrics of the song, written by a Xhosa preacher last century. When pressed, they admitted knowing at most some of the words of the first stanza.

ANC officials estimated that the guests were two- thirds from their supporters, with the rest from the official embassy guest list. Lady Thatcher was believed to have realised that her ego would not have survived the occasion. One ANC official said: 'She used to say that the day the ANC was elected South Africa would be in cloud cuckoo land.'

Dillon Woods, the son of Donald Woods, the dissident South African editor portrayed in the film Cry Freedom, said: 'It was wonderful to see the South African embassy for once catering to the interests of all South Africans. The ANC rank-and-file took over the basement.' England fly-half Stuart Barnes, who leaves for his first tour of South Africa with the England rugby union team today, refused to tour the country in 1984 when England broke the international ban on sporting contacts with South Africa. 'I don't think sportsmen can use 'sports and politics don't mix' as an excuse,' he said. 'I didn't want to represent 50 million English people touring a country where the regime was abhorrent.' Mr Barnes and his team colleagues arrive in Durban on Thursday.