By Aislinn Laing, Cape Town 3:14PM BST 30 Jun 2013
Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s revered anti-apartheid leader, could become the first non-Briton to be honoured in a memorial service at Westminster Abbey, it has emerged.
A spokesman for the abbey confirmed to The Daily Telegraph that discussions were ongoing between UK authorities and the South African High Commission to hold a ceremony at the historic location after Mr Mandela’s death.
But he denied a suggestion that the idea was raised by The Queen herself who, South Africa’s Sunday Independent claimed, has indicated that she would want to attend.
“We have had tentative talks with the South African High Commission,” Duncan Jeffrey, a spokesman for the abbey, said.
“There are no decisions about exactly who would attend. It’s really too premature to discuss these things while Mr Mandela is still with us.”
He conceded that holding such a service was unprecedented at Westminster Abbey, which has been the coronation church for every British monarch since 1066 and the burial place of 17 royals.
Mr Mandela is now entering his fourth week of treatment at Pretoria’s Heart Hospital for a reoccurring lung infection. Speaking during a press conference with the visiting US president Barack Obama on Saturday, South Africa’s president Jacob Zuma said he remained in a “critical but stable” condition.
“I think with all the prayers and good wishes that have been made, it certainly must do something,” he added. “We hope that very soon he will be out of hospital.”
If Mr Mandela were to be honoured at Westminster Abbey at a service attended by The Queen, it would mark an astonishing turnaround for a man once classified by the British authorities as a terrorist.
But since his release from 27 years in prison in 1990, he has been treated as a unique case by the British government. During a state visit to London in 1996 – once he had become South Africa’s first black president – he was accorded the rare honour of addressing both Houses of Parliament in Westminster Hall. Today, his statue stands opposite to Sir Winston Churchill’s in Parliament Square.
Mr Mandela has also enjoyed a close relationship with The Queen.
In 1995, he became the first foreign recipient of an Order of Merit from her when she visited him in South Africa a year after he came to power. The following year, on his visit to London, he danced with the Queen during a concert at the Albert Hall.
Mr Mandela’s grandson Kweku told The Daily Telegraph in a recent interview that the Queen had rung his grandfather at home on several occasions.
“The first time he met her, he called her Elizabeth and she told him: ’It’s actually Your Majesty. And you have to bow’,” he said.
A palace insider agreed that the Queen enjoyed a “very warm relationship” with Mr Mandela but stressed that no decisions could be made while he was still alive.