The exiled royal even tried out a South African accent
Touching down in New York for Mandela Day, Prince Harry did what any other concerned private citizen would do, and headed to the UN to make a speech. His theme was hope, and his theme was Africa. More the imaginary country that exists in the heads of a certain caste of Englishman than the actual continent.
The Prince has deep roots there. Harry has a picture on his wall of his mother meeting Nelson Mandela. He is the patron of a charity that protects Rhinos.
And it was in Africa that the late Princess Diana appeared to Harry as a jungle cat. Ok, ok: that happened in Harry & Meghan: A Royal Romance, a made-for-TV movie. (The Mail described the scene as “emotional”.) But the difference between Harry’s life and basement-scraping scripted dramas is thin, and becoming thinner all the time.
Much of his work is based in Africa, he said, though he was coy on whether this was the Spotify deal, or the Netflix one. Anyway: “despite continued hardship, there are people across Africa who embody Mandela’s spirit and ideals — building on the progress he helped make possible.”
The spirit of Mandela’s South Africa was there in Botswana (a relatively similar country to South Africa, sure), where Harry realised that he had found a “soulmate for life” in Meghan Markle. The country —no, the continent, or was it Botswana? — was a “lifeline”. A place of peace and healing. Paying the ultimate tribute to Mandela, Harry delivered the entire speech in a peculiarly South African accent.
Were they so different really? A room in a castle, a cell on Robben Island; we can be assured that history will look back and see two freedom fighters. The teenage Harry probably would have completed this tribute by blacking-up, but he is, as he tries to remind us so often with these stunts, a changed man.
Out of Africa, Harry sounded somewhat Old Testament prophet about the global struggle for democracy, abortion rights, and climate change. In some places the water is “quite literally rising”. (Figurative rising will occur at 4 degrees warming.) This has been a “painful year in a painful decade” said the Duke.
What Harry says doesn’t really matter. You can read it in the comment pages of the Guardian on any given day. Sometimes it will even make more sense than this speech. More interesting is his transition — not from Prince to private citizen, or from Prince to influencer — from institutional somebody to celebrity anybody. This is a very contemporary journey (see also: Rory Stewart.)
Inside an institution, you are a somebody. You have a role there. The role is governed by rules; it requires boring, private, sedulous work, and it asks tiny but irritating every day sacrifices of you to fulfil. Frustrated, you exchange this for being a celebrity anybody. The rules, the sacrifices, and the glamourless work are gone. Instead: you make content for a variety of distribution channels. You make deals with brands. You become a brand. Harry has exchanged the solidity (and inanity) of a proscribed role for this hamster wheel. It’s another kind of pressure, another kind of hell.
“Here was a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders”, Harry said about Mandela. He sounded as if he was describing himself.