/ 12 September 2022

For Africans, the British empire was neither benign nor good

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Britain's King Charles III attends the Presentation of Addresses by both Houses of Parliament in Westminster Hall, inside the Palace of Westminster, central London on September 12, 2022 in London. Photo: Getty Images

The age of Elizabeth has come to an end. Her son – to reign as Charles III – is the new British monarch.  A change in the royal family of the United Kingdom, in the era of universal acceptance of democracy and where rulership by birth has become archaic, would yield very little interest and reaction. 

Yet it is hard to ignore the legacy of British rule over the native inhabitants of South Africa. And the death of the longest-serving British monarch is a signal moment to examine how the British upended the lives of the native people of South Africa. 

Elizabeth II did not found the British empire. Nor did she preside over its extension to Southern Africa. It was her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, who did so. Victoria’s reign was at the time the longest (64 years) and the most consequential in Southern Africa. Victoria built the empire, anchored its fearsome military reputation, and secured its economic position in the world. It was during her reign that the British came to create and dominate world trade, both in gold and diamonds. 

The soil from which these precious minerals were extracted was not located in England, but mostly in Southern Africa. The diamonds in the British monarch’s crown are from India and South Africa. Victoria’s imperial statues can be found today in some of England’s former land possessions, such as Cape Town, Gqeberha and Mgungundlovu. 

When Victoria died in 1901, the British had opened a new frontier of war, not against the indigenous people of South Africa, the Xhosa and the Zulu, as they had done for a hundred years since 1799, but with another occupying force, the Afrikaners. 

That war ended in defeat for the Afrikaners, but it created conditions for the establishment of a white racial oligarchy – a combination of the British and Afrikaners – which would rule South Africa for the next hundred years, until 1994. In fact, Dr Alfred Xuma, a medical doctor and former president of the ANC, once observed that apartheid was simply a variation of white rule, not its invention. 

Victoria’s success in the consolidation of the British empire is evident not only by the sheer vastness of the territory that the British acquired under her reign but at the social, cultural and normative changes in the people impacted by British rule. Their language, religion, and cultural aspirations were so fundamentally changed that even the language of protest against the colonial empire mimicked the aesthetics of the empire itself. Inyembezi zika Vitoliya (‘Victoria’s tears’, meaning hard alcohol) entered the isiXhosa vocabulary as something pleasurable in its destruction.

It was in the Victorian era that the British annexed what was then Transvaal, and placed the Pedi under their control, finally defeated the Xhosa in 1878, and in the brutal wars of Natal in March 1879 avenged their defeat at Isandlwana and placed the Zulus under the British sphere of influence. 

When the deposed king of the Zulus, Cetshwayo ka Mpande, visited the United Kingdom pleading for the restoration of his kingdom, it was with Victoria that he met, being forced to settle for a diminished role to enforce imperial desires and wishes over the Zulu people, occupying a reduced land surface. 

Victorianism was good for business. Not only did British citizens Cecil John Rhodes and Barney Barnato influence the diamond and gold trade in the Cape and Transvaal, but their fortunes were also amassed with the help of the imperial government, becoming super-rich capitalists at the time. When Rhodes duped the king of the Ndebele, Lobengula, to obtain the mineral-rich land of the Ndebele, he could rely on Victoria to sponsor a war and to declare the land as “Crown land”, to which Rhodes had unending access. 

In South Africa, what had begun 50 years earlier as a truce of the so-called South African (Anglo-Boer) war in 1901, had consolidated into apartheid. Although no longer a formal colonial power, British influence in politics and social and economic infrastructure was evident. British possessions acquired under colonialism remained intact.           

When Elizabeth became queen of England in 1953, the empire was at an ebb. One of its prized possessions, India had successfully agitated for independence. Although the seeds of freedom for African states were being planted, opponents of British interests, such as the Mau-Mau in Kenya, were also fought with brutality. 

Caroline Elkins in her book Britain’s Gulag has meticulously shown the depraved violence deployed by British soldiers in the suppression of the Mau-Mau fight for freedom, such as the torture of detainees at the Kenyan concentration camps. The complicity of the British government in the violence resulted in a successful class action lawsuit for reparations which was only resolved a couple of years ago, in British courts.  

Elizabeth’s first prime minister, Winston Churchill, was an archimperialist. Towards the end of World War II, he had resisted attempts by US president Franklin Roosevelt to extend the principles of the Atlantic Charter – all people shall have a right to self-determination – to Africans under British rule. Churchill was not prepared to “preside over the liquidation of the British empire”. 

Elizabeth’s own declaration in Cape Town, when she was only  21, that she would devote her whole life to “the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong” would have done nothing to assure the native people of South Africa of her commitment towards their freedom. 

Like Churchill, Elizabeth did not seek to liquidate the empire as a colonial force as such. But unlike Victoria, her ancestor, she presided over the great transformation of its relations with the former colonies. The British government was no longer interested in imposing its own governors to rule the colonies. 

The colonies could be provided with their freedom on the condition that it would not threaten Britain’s economic interests. Hence many constitutions of the newly independent states of Africa in the 1960s contained clauses to protect private property, which were assets obtained under colonial rule by European corporations and individuals, including vast amounts of land. The so-called “commonwealth of nations” served to enable Britain to continue overseeing her interests in the former colonies.

The approach of the British government towards the natives of South Africa did not change much in the early decades of apartheid. Paul Landau’s recent book, Mandela and the Revolutionaries, lays bare the close collaboration between the apartheid intelligence services,  the British foreign intelligence service, known as the MI6, and the United State’s CIA, which worked to foil the efforts of the ANC’s freedom fighters, from as far afield as Botswana. 

Bob de Quehen of MI6 watched Africa’s clamour for independence, with “asperity and trepidation”. It was in fact the CIA’s Durban agent, Don Rickard, who provided information to the South African security branch that led to the arrest of Nelson Mandela on 5 August 1962.  Plainly, Her Majesty’s government was preaching one thing and doing the opposite. Prime minister Harold Macmillan was talking about a “wind of change”, but her majesty’s agents were working to preserve British hegemony in Africa. 

Elizabeth’s greatest impact has not necessarily been to influence British policy to change attitudes towards the native people of South Africa but to make British soft power more palatable to the former colonies and the world in general — to give British imperial power a gentler appearance. 

The complexity of the world brought about by the end of the Cold War and the emergence of China on the world stage demanded a new approach, no longer based on the pillage and plunder doctrine enthusiastically embraced by Elizabeth’s predecessors. As the British sought to transform their approach from colonialism to imperialism, a new vocabulary, new normative systems, and new cultural norms were emerging. 

History books such as Niall Fergusson’s Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World told a story of empire, not only as a benign force but as a good thing overall, including for the colonised. The “civilising mission”, which was the central justification of most of the atrocities committed by the British in Africa, was now replaced with apparently neutral terms such as “progress”, “modernity” and “the free world”. 

The British empire has not died with the death of its most consequential monarch. It remains diffuse in significant forms. Elizabeth’s last prime minister, Liz Truss, appointed the first chancellor of the exchequer with Ghanaian roots, Kwasi Kwarteng, itself evidence of the mastery of British adaptability. Kwarteng will be familiar with the subject of this piece as only a few years ago, he published the acclaimed Ghosts of Empire in which he examines the shameful legacy of the British in Asia and West Africa. He would recall, too, Elizabeth’s ambivalence towards the independence of Ghana.   

Much of the continued poverty of black Africans is attributable directly to the policies of the British empire: the legacies of slavery; the violent seizure of the land; the theft of cattle; the extraction of minerals, and forced labour conditions. All these have created a life of affluence for British citizens and massive wealth for British corporations. Those legacies have proved extremely difficult to reverse, with conventional policies which do no more than entrench the wealth of white Europeans at the expense of Africans.

Perhaps first on the agenda of the new monarch, Charles III, is to go beyond the Elizabethan lip service modus operandi: accepting the “wrongs” of the past, yet never committing to tangible corrective action. While a comparison of empires is a futile exercise, England could look at how Germany is attempting — even imperfectly — to exorcise its own imperial demons in Namibia, by putting its money where its mouth is: paying reparations to the indigenous people for the wrongs of the colonial era.  

Empty gestures about “strengthening trade relations” where there are embedded structural trade imbalances as a result of historical practices will not erase the stain of Britain’s colonial plunder of African resources.   

Tembeka Ngcukaitobi SC is a lawyer and author of Land Matters: South Africa’s Failed Land Reforms and the Road Ahead.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.