South African President Jacob Zuma has been given a royal welcome on a state visit to
Britain, but a row over his polygamy threatens to cloud the trip.
Queen Elizabeth II greeted Zuma on London’s Horse Guards parade ground before accompanying him in a black-and-gold horse-drawn carriage to Buckingham Palace, where he is staying for the three-day trip.
In an indication of the importance attached to the visit, Prime Minister Gordon Brown skipped his weekly grilling in parliament to attend the ceremony, which launched a packed agenda including a state banquet on Wednesday evening.
On Thursday Zuma will hold talks with Brown in Downing Street, expected to focus on Zimbabwe. His trip also includes sporting events, ahead of the football World Cup in South Africa, which starts in June.
Zuma, 67, left South Africa embroiled in a major scandal over an out-of-wedlock daughter born in October to the daughter of a top World Cup organiser that has sparked questions about his fitness for office.
Five wives, 20 children
She is the 20th child for the polygamist leader, whose latest wife, Thobeka Madiba Zuma, is accompanying him on the trip.
In all, the president has had five wives, although one died and he divorced another.
Zuma’s ascent to power had been marked by a lengthy corruption investigation that was ultimately dropped, but the uproar that erupted in February over the baby reignited public criticism and doubts about the president.
Analysts say he will use the visit to try to present himself as a statesman, and Britain is certainly rolling out the red carpet.
But controversy hit Zuma even before the formal part of his visit began, after sharp criticism from some of the British media.
An opinion piece in the right-wing Daily Mail newspaper on the eve of the visit questioned: “Jacob Zuma is a sex-obsessed bigot…. So why is Britain fawning over this buffoon?”
An angry Zuma hit back in an interview with the Johannesburg-based Star newspaper, saying the coverage was disrespectful of his Zulu culture and echoed the attitudes of the colonial era, when Britain ruled South Africa.
“When the British came to our country they said everything we are doing was barbaric, was wrong, inferior in whatever way…. I don’t know why they are continuing thinking that their culture is more superior than others,” he said.
After lunch with the British monarch, Zuma presented her with a chess set – only to find that South Africa’s elder statesman Nelson Mandela had given her husband one when he visited in 1996.
“Oh, that’s another set,” said a surprised Zuma, spotting Mandela’s hand-painted ceramic 32-piece game on display in the Palace Picture Gallery.
Later in the afternoon he visited the former home of South African anti-apartheid figure Oliver Tambo in north London.
Buckingham Palace banquet
In the evening, he was welcomed by the royal family to a glittering official state banquet in Buckingham Palace, which was also attended by a host of other dignitaries.
Sporting a tuxedo and red sash and sitting next to the queen, Zuma focused on the strong economic ties between the two countries and hailed Britain as “a significant investment and trading partner.”
On Thursday, Zuma will get down to business with talks with Brown on Zimbabwe, climate change and an upcoming global non-proliferation conference in the United States.
On the eve of his state visit Zuma repeated his call for international sanctions on President Robert Mugabe and his inner circle to be lifted, saying they were not helping the fragile unity government in Harare.
“If they could lift sanctions, that would give Zimbabwe an opportunity to move forward,” the president said, quoted by the Daily Telegraph.
Trade is also likely to feature in the talks. Britain is South Africa’s fourth largest export partner, with two-way trade at 74.9 billion rand ($A10.6 billion) in 2008, South African statistics show.