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LONDON - President Jacob Zuma received a royal welcome yesterday as he began his state visit to Britain with colour and pomp, though the row over his polygamy threatened to cloud the trip from the start.
Queen Elizabeth II greeted Zuma on London's Horse Guards parade ground before accompanying him in a horse-drawn carriage to Buckingham Palace, where he is staying for the three-day trip.
In an indication of the importance of the visit, Prime Minister Gordon Brown skipped his weekly grilling in Parliament to attend the ceremony, which was expected to include a state banquet last night.
Today Zuma is set to hold talks with Brown in Downing Street, where the focus will be on Zimbabwe. His trip also includes sporting events, ahead of the World Cup.
Zuma, 67, left SA in the aftermath of a scandal over an out-of-wedlock daughter born last October to the daughter of a top World Cup organiser, Irvin Khosa.
She is the 20th child for the polygamist leader, whose latest wife, Thobeka Madiba Zuma, is accompanying him on the trip.
In all, Zuma has had five wives, lthough one died and he divorced another.
Zuma's ascent to power had been marked by a corruption investigation that was dropped, but the uproar that erupted in February over the baby reignited public criticism 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 Star, saying the coverage was disrespectful of his Zulu culture and echoed the attitudes of the colonial era, when Britain ruled SA.
"When the British came to our country they said everything we are doing was barbaric ... I don't know why they are continuing thinking that their culture is more superior," he said.
Watching Zuma's arrival in London, South African Adrian Sturgess, 33, who has lived in Britain for 10 years, said: "I don't think Zuma sets a good example.
"SA is a country extremely affected by Aids so his behaviour could have implications."
After a private lunch at the palace yesterday, the queen was expected to show Zuma South Africa-related items in the royal art collection.
He was also expected to visit the former home of struggle hero Oliver Tambo in north London, before the evening's state banquet.
Today, Zuma is set to get down to business with talks with Brown on Zimbabwe, climate change and an upcoming global non-proliferation conference in the US. - Sapa-AFP