Monday, 22 October 2007

Legends of Mandela #2: Rugby legend revived

In honour of South Africa's victory in the rugby World Cup Final, let's look at an urban legend that was associated with a previous Springbok team abroad, and later became a Nelson Mandela legend.

It is one of those truly South African urban legends with a long pedigree and variations that take in Springbok rugby in the 1960s, Nelson Mandela in the 1990s, and even Paul Kruger, president of the old Transvaal Republic, a century before.

Its most common variation is told as an anecdote from one of the Springbok tours of the United Kingdom, during the period after the advent of apartheid but before John Vorster further damned South African sport by banning mixed teams from touring here.

The Springboks had been invited to a lavish banquet at the castle of one of those aristocratic knights of the realm who regarded himself as a patron of rugby. The Boks were all rough-hewn men from rough-hewn backgrounds, and none had ever been inside a real, working castle before. Far less had they eaten with golden cutlery.

They were overwhelmed by the glittering sight of the table settings. Before the first course had even arrived, most of the golden knives, forks and spoons had disappeared off the table. The team manager saw with consternation what was happening. He realised that his team's table manners could cause a huge diplomatic scandal, and possibly even endanger the return tour by the British Lions a few years later.

When the first course arrived, soup in china plates, on silver platters and covered with silver tureens, he quickly turned to his host and said, "It's traditional that I always say grace before we eat on tour. Do you mind?"

"Of course not, my dear fellow," the grand old man waved his hand in what he imagined was a gesture of generosity.

The manager stood up and asked the assembled guests, in English, to bow their heads and close their eyes. In Afrikaans, he intoned in a lofty voice: "Oh Lord, if you stupid buggers haven't put back the knives and forks by the time I've finished saying grace, there's going to be trouble like you've never seen before in your short, miserable lives."

To the sound of a surreptitious clatter of cutlery, he then proceeded with the normal prayer of thanks.


Table settings have always posed a problem for prominent South Africans. This has, from time to time, caused the most terrible embarrassment, and worked its way into urban legend.

One of the most famous British urban legends about the ways of royalty tells of Paul Kruger's first visit to England in 1877, after Britain had annexed the ZAR, to plead for Boer independence.

Legend has it that "Oom Paul" was a crusty old man who had evolved from cowherd to cattle farmer to president without losing the rough manners of his farming life. So, when he was invited to a banquet in his honour at Buckingham Palace, no one dared lecture him in advance about the etiquette of eating with royalty.

He sat down at Queen Victoria's banquet, waited for grace to be said, and then, as daintily as he could, pulled his soup bowl nearer and commenced with the first course.

The other guests were aghast. For the bearded old man was not eating soup, but drinking the scented hot water in his finger bowl. As they stared in horror, Queen Victoria revealed her presence of mind. She quickly pulled her own finger bowl closer, and also began spooning up the scented water.

She stared fiercely at anyone who still sat frozen, and within moments the entire table was enjoying the delights of their finger bowls.


Nowadays the legend is told around the world about the behaviour of a Japanese or Chinese head of state, with Queen Elizabeth II playing the gracious host.

It is perhaps fitting that a legend starring President Kruger as a dour, ill-mannered dinner-guest should have evolved into a legend featuring a sharp, witty and mischievous soon-to-be-president Mandela:

Nelson, Pik and the magic cutlery

The ANC has been leaking a lovely story about Nelson Mandela. Behind the serious politician lurks a mischievous old devil. Shortly after his release from the Victor Verster prison on 11 February 1990, he was invited to attend a magnificent banquet set with gleaming golden cutlery, at Groote Schuur, President de Klerk's official residence.

Mandela was sitting next to the foreign minister Pik Botha and as a joke he said, "I would love to take one of these gold knives and forks home with me."

"I know what you mean," Pik replied. "I've already got a set in my pocket."

Later Mandela was called upon to make a speech, which he did with habitual skill and a mischievous twinkle in his eye.

"I am going to show you some magic," he told his admiring listeners. "I will put this knife in my pocket and when I say abracadabra, it will be in Pik Botha's pocket."

The ANC won't tell how Pik Botha played it from there.
- New African, June 1994


Urban legends sniff out greatness. It is in their nature that they congregate around rich, powerful or famous people, prominent and influential companies, and historic events. It is therefore not surprising that so many urban legends emerged from South Africa's transition to democracy, and especially around the central figures in that transition.

None has been more central - and therefore more of a magnet for urban legends - than Nelson Mandela.

That story from the New African started life as a joke, evolved into a piece of supposed gossip, and finally was given the full flesh of urban legend when it reached the influential British-based magazine as "a leak from the ANC". In fact, it had long before appeared almost verbatim in the Mail & Guardian's Krisjan Lemmer column, as "a story told at the launch of ANC's media centre".

Adapted from "Ink in the Porridge: Urban Legends of the South African elections" (Penguin, 1994)



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