President Thabo Mbeki was made a Knight of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem in a colourful investiture ceremony held in St George's Cathedral in Cape Town on Thursday.

Mbeki was admitted to the British royal order of chivalry by the organisation's Grand Prior, the Duke of Gloucester, a grandson of George the Fifth.

The order, whose sovereign head is Queen Elizabeth II, was first granted official recognition by the British Crown in 1888, a year after the establishment of its well-known St John Ambulance Brigade, though its roots stretch back centuries to the Crusades.

Membership is by invitation only, and those chosen as Knights are expected to help focus attention on the betterment of living conditions of poor and disadvantaged communities.

In a media release earlier this week, the presidency said Mbeki's selection "points to the pivotal role he has played in transforming people's lives both in South Africa and the African continent".

According to the order's website, Knights are not entitled to call themselves "Sir", but are "eligible to register coats of arms with heraldic authorities".

The website also states new Knights are admitted by the Grand Prior "when they are touched on the shoulder with a sword and receive their robes and insignia".

Mbeki was spared the sword, however.

The order's CEO in South Africa, Craig Troeberg, told Sapa: "We do not use swords when admitting heads of state."

During the ceremony, asked if he would conduct himself "as a true Knight and a person of honour", Mbeki replied: "I will".

He also undertook to obey the charter of the order and take special care of those sick and injured.

Earlier, Mbeki, accompanied by his wife, Zanele - dressed in an elegant yellow outfit with four large black buttons - entered the cathedral preceded by four trumpeters.

The couple took their seats in the cathedral's chancel and watched while members of the order, including the Grand Prior made a colourful entrance bearing banners and a giant ceremonial sword.

Also present at the ceremony were newly-elected Democratic Alliance leader, Helen Zille, and Western Cape premier Ebrahim Rasool. - Sapa