The last time a British monarch got to oversee the decolonization of an African territory that once used to be under the authority of the United Kingdom was in 1980: When Zimbabwe gained its independence, Charles, then Prince of Wales, was there in person to formally hand over sovereignty of the new nation to Robert Mugabe.
His mother, Queen Elizabeth II, was in charge of signing the handover papers of some 40 regions around the world in a similar situation during her 70-year reign.
The queen sought to channel the remains of that empire into the Commonwealth, of which the late British monarch was not just the ceremonial head but also the biggest cheerleader:
“One simple lesson from history is that when people come together to talk, to exchange ideas and to develop common goals, wonderful things can happen,” the queen once said about the Commonwealth.
While it lacks a clear definition beyond considering itself “a family of nations,” the Commonwealth under Elizabeth II served the primary purpose of helping former British colonies gain recognition on the international stage for their independence.
Baroness Patricia Scotland, Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, said after the queen’s passing that “Her Majesty’s vision for the Commonwealth at the beginning of her reign has been fulfilled, fuelled by her dedication and commitment.”
A new direction
In addition to the UK, Charles III is now the head of state of 14 of the 56 member nations of the Commonwealth — however, none of them are located on the African continent.
At the same time, the Commonwealth has recently welcomed some new members that don’t share any direct historical ties with the United Kingdom: Togo, a former German colony, and Gabon, a former French colony, joined the Commonwealth earlier this year — without any need or political pressure to do so.
These considerations taken together appear to leave the Commonwealth of the 21st century with an identity crisis, especially when it comes to its meaning and purpose. King Charles III is meant to keep out of politics — however, there are mounting calls for the Commonwealth of Nations to address some highly politicized issues.
Asmita Parshotam, a researcher with the Economic Diplomacy Program at the South African Institute of International Affairs, told DW prior to the queen’s death that Britain also needs to bear shifting power structures in Africa in mind:
“I think Britain should be cautious and aware of the narrative of certain political factions of advancing the Commonwealth on the premise of imperial nostalgia and a desire to return to the ‘good old days,'” Parshotam said.
“The last thing they want to reinforce is that they still see the Commonwealth as a group of countries under their influence rather than a group of peers with a shared history.”
Addressing the past
During the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Kigali, Rwanda in June, Charles went as far as apologizing for the role the British empire played in the transatlantic slave trade — something he said “forever stains British history.”
“I cannot describe the depths of my personal sorrow at the suffering of so many, as I continue to deepen my own understanding of slavery’s enduring impact,” he added.
Earlier this year, he strongly criticized the UK policy of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda for processing and resettling. In fact, his objection may have played a solid role in the policy currently being halted, pending legal action.
A few years ago, Charles also spoke out publicly during the so-called Windrush scandal, which resulted in scores of British residents of color being wrongfully deported from the UK after spending roughly half a century living and working in the country.
However, those remarks were all made while Charles was still the Prince of Wales. With the UK’s constitutional monarchy supposed to stay out of politics, King Charles III may have to keep pushing the envelope of what is tolerable at home if he wants his Commonwealth to keep enjoying support.
A political game
Just how big a role the Commonwealth continues to play within UK politics was made clear last year when former Prime Minister Boris Johnson actively got involved in trying to have Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland ousted from her role.
The Guardian daily newspaper — a left-leaning publication that is hardly in favor of imperialism nor a vociferous advocate of the Commonwealth — criticized Johnson’s ambitions to depose Scotland, saying that some Commonwealth leaders had even said that these efforts risked “breaking the Commonwealth.”
Political issues seem to overshadow Britain’s ongoing links and influence across the Commonwealth — especially on the African continent.
In South Africa, towns with historic names like Port Elizabeth are being rebranded — in this case as Gqeberha — to divorce the country’s present narrative from the past. In neighboring Zimbabwe, Victoria Falls is now known as Mosi-oa-Tunya. Similar renaming efforts have taken place around the globe.
In the case of Zimbabwe, there’s also great anger over ongoing sanctions imposed on the country, which plays out in outspokenly anti-royalist sentiments.
Douglas Mahiya, spokesman for the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association, said he “would like to remind the British, and the incoming King of the British, that it is not necessary for them to continue using … sanctions against Zimbabwe,” adding he saw little to no reason for Zimbabwean to mourn the queen.
A ‘genocidal’ Commonwealth leader
Elsewhere, critics of the monarchy are mincing their words even less: Uju Anya, a US-based university professor in linguistics at the Carnegie Mellon University, who examines the role of race and gender in languages, made some scathing remarks about the queen and the Commonwealth on Twitter: “I heard the chief monarch of a thieving, raping genocidal empire is finally dying. May her pain be excruciating,” the now-infamous tweet read.
If anyone expects me to express anything but disdain for the monarch who supervised a government that sponsored the genocide that massacred and displaced half my family and the consequences of which those alive today are still trying to overcome, you can keep wishing upon a star.
— Uju Anya (@UjuAnya) September 8, 2022
Twitter took the post down, after it attracted an avalanche of hate-speech. Meanwhile Anya’s follower count of 70,000 nearly tripled within days.
Anya later put her criticism in context, saying that 15 years into the queen’s reign, civil war broke out in Nigeria, where one side of her family hails from. The UK funded “the genocide that massacred and displaced half my family.”
An estimated 2 million people died during the conflict. In her opinion, the Commonwealth merely served as window-dressing:
“Elizabeth II was ruler, was monarch at that time. This was the government that she was supervising,” Anya said about the queen.
“The very crown that she had on her head signifying the fact that she’s a monarch was made from plunder. Diamonds, blood diamonds. So the throne that she’s sitting on is made of blood. So you cannot say that she is just this little old lady.”
Other People of Color disagree with that view. Among the thousands of people queueing for miles to pay their respects to the late queen was Gladys, who moved to the UK from Ghana.
“I’m Ghanian, I’m British and I’m a citizen of the Commonwealth. And I want that to be heard here. And she is all our queen,” she said when asked why she wanted to see the queen lying in state.
Esther Ravenor, a Kenyan who lives in the UK, meanwhile said she felt humbled as she watched the procession of the coffin: “She loved us all, all of us. Especially someone like me, a migrant woman coming to the UK 30 years ago.”
As the UK marches towards the date of the state funeral, it becomes evident that there is not a single unified view on how to navigate between past, present and future for those whose lives are undeniably linked to Britain’s colonial past — with or without the Commonwealth.
“Britain could potentially become an important ally in contributing to Africa’s development agenda through championing some of their issues at international fora,” said Asmita Parshotam.
An overdue conversation
The are mounting voices meanwhile, saying that perhaps the Commonwealth can redefine itself in this new Carolean age as a conversation starter and mitigator addressing precisely these imbalances, questions and challenges on the international stage.
Harking back to the late queen’s message of seeking intellectual exchange, King Charles III has already said he wished to continue such dialogue — in the spirit of righting historic wrongs: “If we are to forge a common future that benefits all our citizens, we too must find new ways to acknowledge our past,” Charles said. “Quite simply, this is a conversation whose time has come.”
Benita van Eyssen contributed to this article which was published here by the DW.
Edited by: Keith Walker