On the first stop on their 10-day tour of southern Africa, royal watchers noticed something crucial missing from the Duchess of Sussex — her diamond engagement ring.
It wasn’t by accident that she had chosen to leave the “bling” behind.
This was by design. The Duchess, accompanied by the Duke, were visiting Nyanga township in Cape Town, dubbed South Africa’s murder capital and, after a turbulent few months, this was their trip to turn things around.
So the engagement ring, considered too ostentatious by “Team Meghan”, was consigned to the jewellery safe back home. In its place, the Duchess wore a very simple, slim band that reportedly cost just pounds 200.
Then there was the outfit worn to the township, a simple black and white flowing dress that retails at pounds 69 and was designed by a Malawi fashion label that employs women with HIV.
Never mind that the Duchess and her husband had been attracting negative headlines for enjoying exactly the lavish lifestyle she has tried to play down on this tour.
In recent months they have been criticised for — among other things — the pounds 2.4 million cost to the taxpayer of refurbishing Frogmore Cottage, their home on the Windsor estate, and a series of flights taken on private jets despite voicing their environmental concerns.
The southern Africa tour has provided the perfect platform for them to try to win back some friends, in part by toning down the bling. A well-placed source said: “It wouldn’t look right to turn up in a township in an expensive dress with expensive jewellery. The Duchess thought that wouldn’t be right.”
The source said there was input from the team that surrounds the Duchess, which includes her new(ish) press secretary Sara Latham, an American who previously worked for the Clintons. But, said the source, “most of this is coming from the Duchess herself”.
On that first appearance in Nyanga, the Duchess declared herself a “woman of colour” who stood with her “sisters” in the township and across South Africa. It was a startling opening to a Royal tour, that would normally begin with an official “meet and greet” by the host country at the bottom of the aircraft steps.
Slowly but surely, the Duchess, 38, is creating a brand. She has launched herself on this tour as a champion of female victims of gender violence; of women with HIV; and of township children suffering from mental health issues.
Her press team have dispensed with decades of tradition by refusing to release daily details of what the Duchess was wearing.
Not everybody is content with a pared down Duchess, mind you. A prominent royal watcher, Jane Barr, who writes the Berkshire to Buckingham blog, wrote: “Meghan is a princess. She is not Meghan Markle, the actress of yesteryear, visiting Africa as part of her charity development. We expect royals, to have a certain timelessness and glamour — a wow factor.”
But the Duchess won’t be troubled by such old fashioned views. She is shaking things up at the Palace, and deliberately so.
History in the making
At the start of a 10-day tour of southern Africa, the Duchess of Sussex, microphone in hand, stood on a tree stump in South Africa’s most dangerous township and declared that she was there as “a woman of colour”.
Not since she married into the British monarchy had she publicly mentioned her mixed-race heritage.
The speech was heartfelt and the crowd loved it. They whooped and cheered and the royal couple clapped back. They hugged the children present and danced with them.
A visit to a workshop run by the Justice Desk, an organisation that helps children, including girls who have been raped, was their chance to stress that they were both serious and warm-hearted.
“While I am here with my husband as a member of the Royal family,” said the Duchess in a two-minute personal address, “I want you to know that for me, I am here with you as a wife, as a woman, as a woman of colour and as your sister. I am here with you and I am here for you.”
She urged women to fight for “respect, dignity and equality” after watching girls at a self-defence class at the Methodist church. Their motto is: “When you strike a woman, you strike a rock.”
Jessica Dewhurst, who founded the Justice Desk, was surprised at just how far the Duchess had gone in showing solidarity. “To hear Meghan say she was here as a woman of colour sent shivers down my spine,” she said.
The Duke played his part, speaking of his pride at bringing his wife and son Archie, aged just four-and-a-half months, to a country of which he is so fond. In his own commitment to tackle violence against women, he declared: “No man is born to cause harm to women; this is learnt behaviour and a cycle that needs to be broken.”
The Duke and Duchess had only just got off their commercial flight from London, which was 40 minutes late. Archie, seen at the airport in a woolly hat to keep out the morning chill, was elsewhere with his nanny during the visit to Nyanga.
The couple were greeted by Xhosa singers and dancers.
The Duke swayed his hips and the Duchess clapped. A child approached the Duchess and she reached out for a hug. On the way out, the couple danced with the girl troupe.
Later in the day, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex visited South Africa’s oldest mosque, Auwul Mosque, in Bo-Kaap, one of Cape Town’s oldest residential quarters and a former slave enclave with brightly-painted houses.
Harry and Meghan, who wore a cream headscarf and long dress, met Muslim and Christian religious leaders, including anti-apartheid cleric Michael Lapsley who lost both his hands and the sight in one eye from a parcel bomb sent by apartheid security forces.
On Saturday, the Duchess demonstrated her solidarity with millions of female victims of violence by posting a photograph of herself at the shrine to a teenage student raped and murdered in South Africa.
The brutal killing of Uyinene Mrwetyana in Cape Town triggered protests across the country.
In the photograph, posted on SussexRoyal, the official Instagram account of the Royal couple, the Duchess is tying a yellow ribbon at a spot close to the 19-year-old’s murder. She also wrote Simi kunye kulesisimo, in Xhosa, one of the local languages, meaning “We stand together in this moment”.
It is understood the Duchess visited the scene on Thursday.
The post read: “The Duchess of Sussex has tied a ribbon at the site where 19-year-old... Uyinene Mrwetyana was murdered last month, to pay her respects and show solidarity with those who have taken a stand against gender based violence [GBV] and femicide.
“The Duke and Duchess had been following what had happened and were both eager to learn more... The Duchess spoke to [Uyinene’s] mother of this week to relay their condolences.
“Visiting the site of this tragic death and being able to recognise Uyinene, and all women and girls affected by GBV... was personally important to The Duchess.
“Uyinene’s death has mobilised people in the fight against GBV, and is seen as a critical point in the future of women’s rights in South Africa. The Duchess has taken visits and meetings over the past two days to deepen her understanding and continue to advocate for the rights of women and girls.”
The post concludes with a link to #AmINext, a social media movement prompted by the murder.
The Duchess has already used this tour to raise awareness of the danger to women especially in South Africa. But her decision to visit the scene of the murder — the student was killed inside the post office in the affluent suburb of Claremont — will ensure the cause comes to the fore.
The case sparked outrage among South Africans demanding action be taken to quell the country’s rate of female murders, which according to the World Health Organisation is five times the global average. According to statistics, at least 137 sexual offences are committed every day in South Africa, largely against women.
Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa’s president who will meet the Duke and Duchess later this week, has promised to crack down on gender-based violence. He has said: “Violence against women is a men’s problem. It is men who rape and kill women. Let us not look away.”
Baby Archie’s public debut
Baby Archie made a rare public appearance on Wednesday as his parents, Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, continued their first official tour as a family in South Africa.
Meghan held Archie as the royal couple met with Nobel Peace Prize winner and Archbishop Desmond Tutu in Cape Town.
The youngest member of Britain’s royal family had been out of the spotlight since his christening in July. Archie, born in May, is the first child of Prince Harry and the former Meghan Markle and seventh in line to the British throne.
Tutu greeted the baby with a delighted smile.
The royal couple posted on social media a photo of the 87-year-old archbishop giving Archie a gentle kiss on the forehead.
“Thank you Archbishop Tutu for your incredibly warm hospitality, Archie loved meeting you!” they wrote.
Gifts for the baby included children’s books written and signed by the archbishop.