By Sishuwa Sishuwa
Many Africans’ largely unsympathetic reaction to the death of Queen Elizabeth II has come as a surprise to the average British person. This is hardly surprising. Given the passage of time and the queen’s age, most British people either do not associate her with the British Empire, do not know much about the negative side of it or, if they do, see it as belonging to the distant past. Overall, they tend to see her — and themselves — as innocent.
Many Africans see things very differently. This is not to do with Elizabeth as a person but rather with the institution of the British monarchy and the atrocities committed in its name. Here, we see the continent’s complex relationship with the monarchy and the queen, one that recognises her association with a problematic colonial legacy but also as a global “celebrity”. In her role as a “British celebrity”, the queen has been used as a tool to legitimise the United Kingdom’s interests in former colonies and to build the country’s “soft” global power. This has had the effect of masking and deflecting the brutal legacy and atrocities of British colonialism.
Across the continent today, and especially among its youth, there are growing calls for an acknowledgement of this terrible past, and for reparations and return of the cultural artefacts that were looted in the interest of empire in the name of British monarchs. The problem is that fixating on Britain’s royalty, when it was successive elected governments that did so many vile things, risks making the monarchy a lightning rod and protects the British people from having to fully “own” their past.
It is also fair to remember that Elizabeth herself was the last imperial British monarch and that her reign saw unprecedented decolonisation in Africa. In her time, the empire, forged through force, became the Commonwealth, an organisation to which membership is voluntary and that has enabled the UK to maintain global influence way beyond its size as a nation. If Elizabeth can hardly take credit for the dismantling of the British empire, she also cannot be accused of building it.
On an individual level, she enjoyed close relations with many nationalist leaders, such as Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda, Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere and South Africa’s Nelson Mandela precisely because she was a pragmatist who accommodated and adapted to the tide of decolonisation and independence. The exception is Kenya, where the anti-colonial struggle was violently repressed by the British military in the early years of her reign, with tens of thousands of Africans killed and tortured in concentration camps.
For Kaunda and Mandela in particular, their conception and practice of political leadership were rooted in the ethos of ubuntu, which recognises other people’s humanity. For them, even if the queen represented a monarchy with a problematic past, they determined that the most effective and sustainable response to that murky history was not to harbour resentment or hate. It was to foster love, forgiveness, reconciliation and shared understanding. Their engagement with the queen projected a kind of African agency that recognises the dignity of all human beings.
This is why, while much of Africa saw the queen as a symbol of a problematic institution, she will still be mourned across the continent as a fellow human being in line with African philosophical recognition of common humanity, one that unfortunately was not accorded to Africans themselves during the colonial enterprise.