By David Monyae
The long-serving British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, died on the 8 th of September aged 96. She took over the reins of arguably the most powerful and influential monarchy in the world at the tender age of 25 after the death of her father King George VI.
Queen Elizabeth would retain the throne for an incredible 70 years, becoming the longest-serving monarchy in British history. She left behind an immensely wealthy monarchy whose assets are valued at a staggering US$28 billion. Her own personal wealth is estimated at over US$500 million. Her death has had global reverberations reflecting her global statue whose shadow extends to all the corners of the world including Africa.
In Africa, her death has been received with mixed feelings characterized by sympathy and indifference in more or less equal measure. The significance and relevance of the Queen’s death in Africa derives from the well-documented history of the British empire in Africa whose legacy is still visible today. Queen Elizabeth II’s reign coincided with the retreat of the British empire in Africa.
By 1980, less than 30 years into her reign, the British empire had lost all of its 14 colonies in Africa the last of which was Zimbabwe. The legacy of the British empire in Africa is one of violence, war, destruction, exploitation, extractivism, and racism that continues to affect its former colonies today. The empire asserted its rule in its African colonies through wars of conquest that killed hundreds of thousands of Africa. Under the colonial governments of the British empire, millions of Africans would be dispossessed of their land and livestock which constituted their wealth.
Africans were consigned to providing cheap labour in the mines and farms of the empire’s agents. The empire extracted raw materials such as gold, diamonds, iron, rubber, copper, cotton, coffee, and tobacco among others from its colonies to feed its industries in Britain. As such, the colonial economy was designed to serve the mercantile interests of the British empire while under-developing the colonies.
The governance systems excluded Africans on the basis of their assumed inferiority. African culture was described as backward and demonic leading to the imposition of the empire’s culture.
Hence, the British empire was a comprehensively racist enterprise driven by the ideology of white supremacy with little regard for the humanity of African people.
While Queen Elizabeth II benefited from and inherited the wealth of the British empire, a significant part of which came through pillaging of the resources of the colonies, she tried to cast the monarchy as Africa’s friend in the post-colonial era.
She herself travelled to 20 African countries and during one of her trips she said she felt at home in Africa. She was photographed multiple times dancing with African leaders such as first Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah and the first Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda with whom she had developed a strong bond.
The monarchy has retained its ties to Africa through the Commonwealth of Nations which is a grouping of all former British colonies headed by the Queen. It has become a platform to forge shared values and discuss issues of common interests. The royal family runs numerous charity organizations across the continent involved in environmental, poverty and education issues among other things. Many African leaders were quick to send their condolences when the news of the Queen’s passing spread across the world.
Yet despite her collegiality and affable personality, she never really managed to erase or atone for the legacy of British colonialism in Africa.
There are many who believe, and rightly so, that the power and the wealth she commanded came through the blood of innocent Africans. She is accused of presiding over the brutal response of the British colonial authorities to decolonization movements across Africa which saw the murder, torture, and rape of tens of thousands of Africans by the empire’s armies. It is said that the British royal family has a significant collection of African artefacts that were looted during the empire’s conquests which Queen Elizabeth made no effort to return.
This is equivalent to the appropriation of African culture and identity.
Further, Queen Elizabeth never apologized for the well-documented evil deeds of the British empire in Africa and Asia despite having ample opportunity to do so. This has led some to view her as unapologetic about British colonialism in Africa.
Neither did the Queen respond to demands for reparations by former colonies. Germany has committed to paying reparations for the genocide it executed in Namibia. While her monarchy had no policy-making power in Britain, it nevertheless had sufficient influence to affect the perceptions of policy makers.
By failing to apologize and ignoring the debate on reparations, the Queen was abdicating her moral responsibility towards her monarchy’s former colonies who are still suffering from the effects of its policies. As such, Queen Elizabeth II leaves behind a mixed legacy in Africa that has divided opinion on the occasion of her death.
Monyae is an Associate Professor of International Relations and Political Sciences and Director of the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg.