Students in light blue dresses and navy blue blazers walk briskly through the gate at Queen Elizabeth Girls High School in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital to attend lessons that start at 8am. In the city’s central business district, however, the Queen Elizabeth Hotel is up for sale, the owners have recently announced.
By Reagan Mashavave
The local landmarks named for the monarch, who died aged 96 at Balmoral last Thursday, are concrete representations of the ties linking Zimbabwe, a former British colony, to the United Kingdom.
The country occupies a unique place in Commonwealth history as the only nation to be suspended and then to have withdrawn from the 54-nation bloc it is now seeking to rejoin.
The Queen’s death has highlighted divisions between those who have offered sympathy and lament the time spent outside the organisation, and those who are more indifferent or openly hostile about the legacy of British colonialism in Africa.
Initially known as Rhodesia after Cecil John Rhodes who led the colonisation of the country in 1890, Zimbabwe gained independence from Britain in 1980 after a war of liberation.
In the early 2000s, relations between Britain and Zimbabwe under the late President Robert Mugabe plummeted after the Mugabe government violently took over white-owned farms in land reforms the government claimed were designed to take back land claimed by white settlers.
A violent and disputed 2002 presidential poll resulted in Mr Mugabe facing criticism from the West and the country being suspended from the Commonwealth in March 2002. In December 2003 Mr Mugabe quit the 54-nation bloc in protest after it resolved to extend sanctions against his regime.
Now, President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government is lobbying to rejoin however experts are yet to be convinced of the case. In the wake of the Queen’s death, Mr Mnangagwa took to Twitter to express his “deepest condolences” to the royal family, the United Kingdom and Commonwealth.
The man who became leader after a 2017 military coup that removed Mr Mugabe is eager to mend relations and be re-admitted.
“For Zimbabwe to flourish, we cannot let history hold us back,” Mr Mnangagwa said after he met the Commonwealth secretary-general Patricia Scotland and the former prime minister Tony Blair recently in Rwanda.
David Coltart, an opposition MP and founding member of the Movement for Democratic Change, said he was inspired by the Queen’s leadership skills and said it is a “deep regret” that Zimbabwe did not benefit from her leadership in the past two decades.
“She was profoundly inspirational figure in my life. She always handled her massive responsibilities with such grace, decency and dignity,” Mr Coltart wrote in a tribute. He also accused the ruling Zimbabwe African National Unity Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) of misleading the country by withdrawing.
“Zimbabwe is only not a member of the Commonwealth because of a very poor decision taken by ZANU-PF to withdraw. Most Zimbabweans I have no doubt would have preferred to have remained in the Commonwealth,” he said.
Yet for others, the case is not so clear cut. Hopewell Chin’ono, a journalist and government critic said Britain colonial history in Africa is complicated.
“The British are genuinely sad at the passing of Queen Elizabeth, unlike how many Zimbabweans felt when Mugabe died. The British monarch supervised colonialism, but unlike African dictators, the looting benefited British people,” he said. “African dictators leave their citizens suffering,” he added.
Other commentators have been more vocal. A columnist writing under a pen-name Jamwanda in the state run daily, The Herald newspaper had no kind words of the late British monarch.
“This horrible history, and the whole record of British imperialism here and elsewhere, makes me hate the British monarchy, its government and its unhallowed institutions which reek of colonial effluvia, even though I still have the humanity to see and admire late Elizabeth’s graciousness as a piece of human race,” Jamwanda wrote.
Queen Elizabeth is reported to have had “fond memories” of Zimbabwe and visited the country in 1947 with her father King George VI, Queen Mother and Princess Margaret before her reign began in 1952. She returned in 1991 when Harare hosted the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting.
In recent years, however, the country has moved towards replacing colonial-era monuments and statues in line with other former British colonies around the world.
Last year, Zimbabwe unveiled a statue of Mbuya Nehanda, a great Shona spirit medium who was hanged by white settlers in 1897 for leading a war of resistance against colonialism.
“We are now detached from the UK’s royal family. Most people only realised the huge impact of the Queen’s death after the English Premiership soccer League was postponed. Zimbabweans love English soccer league,” Chrispen Shumba, 47, told the i.
“Even the new King Charles III, few people know about him.”