Former African colonies remember Queen's legacy with mixed emotions

·5-min read

From becoming head of the Commonwealth of Nations in 1952 to witnessing the independence of many African countries, Queen Elizabeth II watched a century of history unfold. RFI looks at some of the key moments in the late monarch’s relationship with the African continent.

Elizabeth II’s link with the continent is special since it was in Africa that she became queen, and where she underlined her commitment to the Commonwealth.

In February 1952, Princess Elizabeth was on an official trip to Kenya with her husband, Prince Philip when King George VI died of lung cancer.

Upon her return to England, 25-year-old Elizabeth was officially proclaimed Head of State, of the Anglican Church and of the Commonwealth.

But her commitment to the alliance of former British Empire territories had begun five years earlier, in 1947, during a trip to South Africa.

Our great family

"I declare before you all that my whole life, whether long or short, will be dedicated to your service and to the service of our great family of the Commonwealth, the empire to which we all belong,” she pronounced.

Throughout her reign, Elizabeth II was a privileged witness to the disintegration of the British Empire and the surge of African independence.

Despite the tumult, she was able to maintain ties with the English-speaking countries of the continent, such as Ghana, the first country to gain independence in 1957, where she went in 1961.

Elizabeth II met the influential Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah on this occasion, and even danced with the Pan-Africanist leader, an anecdote made recently popular by the television series “The Crown”.

The visit was significant for several reasons, Africa specialist Virginie Roiron, from Sciences Po university in Paris told RFI.

It was a way to show that the Commonwealth was a "family of nations", "not a British empire under another name," she explains.

Queen Elizabeth worked throughout her reign to make this association of nations "a lively one", one in which the empire could continue to exist but in a more "informal" way.

Her time at the head of the Commonwealth was punctuated with many discreet actions intended to galvanise the nations and promote a kind of equality which was an important aspect of the association.

South Africa

It was not always a smooth journey.

Elizabeth II maintained, for years, a complicated relationship with South Africa which held a referendum for independence in 1960.

It was, however, excluded from the Commonwealth in 1961 due to its apartheid regime.

In 1991, the Queen, who had refused to visit the country since the 1960s, broke with a policy of neutrality and hailed the crumbling of the racist apartheid regime.

Anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela -- who had just been freed from prison -- was invited to a Commonwealth summit in Zimbabwe.

Mandela, not yet president, did not have the rank to attend a queen's banquet.

The invitation broke with protocol and was highly symbolic.

South Africa was readmitted to the Commonwealth in 1994, the year Mandela became the country's first black president.

Mutual respect, affection

"By his own admission, Nelson Mandela was an anglophile, and in the years after his release from prison cultivated a close relationship with the Queen," the Nelson Mandela Foundation wrote in a statement on Friday, sending condolences to the royal family.

"They also talked on the phone frequently, using their first names with each other as a sign of mutual respect as well as affection."

Mandela thought it was important that the former colonial power should have cordial and productive relations with the newly democratic republic of South Africa, the Foundation said.

He even had an affectionate nickname for her: ‘Motlalepula’, "because her visit coincided with torrential rains not experienced in a long time," Mandela had said, describing the her visit as a "watershed".

Not everyone in South Africa expressed their sympathies to the late monarch's family.

"We do not mourn the death of Elizabeth, because to us her death is a reminder of a very tragic period in this country and Africa's history," wrote the leftist Economic Freedom Fighters party led by firebrand politician Julius Malema.

The party described the late Queen as the head of an institution "built up, sustained and living off a brutal legacy of dehumanisation of millions of people across the world."


Describing the Commonwealth as a testament to the queen's "historic legacy" Kenya's president-elect William Ruto said Queen Elizabeth “steered the institution's evolution into a forum for effective multilateral engagement".

"Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was a towering icon of selfless service to humanity and a key figurehead of not only the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth of Nations where Kenya is a distinguished member, but the entire world," outgoing president Uhuru Kenyatta said on Friday, noting the former British colony's close ties with the queen.

Although Kenya's Mau Mau freedom fighters suffered horrific abuses under the colonial regime for taking part in one of the British Empire's bloodiest insurgencies between 1952 and 1960, Kenya has maintained strong ties with its former rulers.

Kenya declared independence from Britain in 1963, with Jomo Kenyatta -- the father of Uhuru -- becoming the country's first president.

Two decades later, the queen returned to Kenya on the invitation of then president Daniel arap Moi.

In 2015, thousands of Mau Mau veterans attended the Nairobi unveiling of a British-funded memorial to those killed, tortured and jailed in the rebellion, in a rare example of former rulers commemorating a colonial uprising.

New members

The Queen’s shortest reigns were in Kenya, Tanganyika -- now the major part of Tanzania -- and Uganda, which each lasted exactly one year between independence and the establishment of the new republics.

In recent years, the Commonwealth has opened its doors to countries that were never British colonies, as it seeks to maintain its relevance in a changing world.

Its members now include former Portuguese colony Mozambique, and its two most recent new members Gabon and Togo, which joined on 25 June, were once ruled by France. Rwanda joined in 2009.

"Queen Elizabeth II was a great friend of Africa and Africa was affectionate towards her in return," said Gabonese president Ali Bongo.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame condoled the queen's passing and said "the modern Commonwealth is her legacy".