Elizabeth II’s “special relationship” with Africa, where it all began

“I declare before all of you that my entire life, long or short, will be dedicated to his service and to the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.” The words of the young Princess Isabel, pronounced before the radio microphones on the occasion of her twenty-first birthday, on April 21, 1947, these days resonate as one of the most symbolic and powerful public statements of his entire long life. Carlos III himself, in his first public speech as king this Friday, mentioned the words that open this text. Not coincidentally, they were pronounced in Cape Town, the South African capital, then part of the British Empire and later – and to this day – of the Commonwealth. The young Isabel accompanied her parents and sister on a visit to the country.

South Africa, the whole of the continent, which the queen said she always carried in her heart, was a key geographical and symbolic space in the long life of Elizabeth II. The sovereign had the opportunity to visit more than 20 African countries. She once assured Nelson Mandela, with whom the queen had a close relationship, that she knew the continent better than “almost anyone.” The queen witnessed the disintegration of the Empire – the word was no longer present in her Coronation oath, on June 2, 1953 – and the African independences: a total of 14 British African colonies became sovereign States during these 70 years, beginning with Ghana in 1957 (in 1961 the queen came to dance with its president and Pan-Africanist leader Kwame Nkrumah).

Less than five years after the Cape Town speech, Africa again, this time Kenya, it becomes a fundamental stage in the life of the future Queen Elizabeth II. There will begin his long reign. The princess was in Kenya with her husband, Prince Felipe, at the beginning of a tour that should have lasted months -and that did not last a week- when he informs him of the death of his father, King George VI.

Isabel had spent, the chronicles say, a wonderful day filming animals in the middle of a safari in Aberdare National Park with the Duke of Edinburgh. They were housed in the now defunct Hotel Treetops. Isabel and Felipe had been married for five years, and the current King Carlos III and his sister, Ana, were already in this world.

“Without a doubt it happened when he was at the top of an African fig tree, which romantically links the moment with that experienced by Elizabeth I, who in 1558, sitting next to an oak tree in Hatfield House [condado inglés de Hertfordshire]learned of the death of her sister, Queen Mary, which meant that she also became a monarch at the age of 25”, recounted her biographer, Sally Bedell Smith.

At that time, the young Elizabeth, 25, became queen of the constituent nations of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. “It is a day that, even after 70 years have passed, I always remember both for the death of my father, King George VI, and for the beginning of my reign,” the queen would admit in February of this year.

Queen Elizabeth II together with Chief Oba Adeniji-Adele II in Lagos in 1953

Queen Elizabeth II together with Chief Oba Adeniji-Adele II in Lagos in 1953Getty

South Africa and its confrontation with Thatcher

One of the queen’s few direct clashes with her prime ministers – a total of 15, from Winston Churchill to Liz Truss, in these more than 70 years – occurred in the mid-1980s, when Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher clashed -their relationship experienced other moments of tension- regarding the apartheid regime in South Africa: the Conservative Prime Minister was in against the economic sanctions to the racist regime and the queen, in favor.

In 1995, a year after the end of apartheid and the arrival of Mandela to the presidency, the queen visited South Africa, and had a heartfelt collective appreciation for the country: “You have become a single nation whose spirit of reconciliation is an example that lights up the world, and I have come back to see for myself what is almost a miracle.”

Queen Elizabeth II with Nelson Mandela in 1995 in South Africa

Queen Elizabeth II with Nelson Mandela in 1995 in South AfricaGetty

In the hours after the queen’s death, the Nelson Mandela Foundation recalled how Elizabeth II and the South African leader “often spoke on the phone, calling each other by their first names as a sign of mutual respect and affection.” According to the BBC, Mandela even had a nickname for Elizabeth II, ‘Motlalepula’, which literally means “arrival with the rain”. The reason: the aforementioned visit to South Africa in 1995 during his presidency coincided with the best rainy season in a long time.

Condolences from the Continent

From South Africa, the mayor of Cape Town yesterday highlighted the queen’s links with the city: “Of course, we remember the queen’s special relationship with Cape Town. Here he celebrated in 1947 his twenty-first birthday and made if not his most famous, then one of his most famous and remembered speeches”. From Nigeria, the largest of the former British colonies in Africa, its president, Muhammadu Buhari, assured in the hours after the death of the sovereign, that “the history of modern Nigeria will never be complete without a chapter dedicated to Queen Elizabeth II, a huge global figure and outstanding leader. He dedicated his life to making his nation, the Commonwealth and the entire world better places.”

The elected president of Kenya, where, as has been said, began his reign, William Ruto, defined as “admirable” the “leadership” of the queen over the Commonwealth. “He directed the evolution of the institution until [convertirse en] a forum for multilateral engagement whose potential to bring about profound socioeconomic change remains uncontested.” Her predecessor, Uhru Kenyatta, described the queen as “a gigantic icon of service to humanity and a key figure not only of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, of which Kenya is a distinguished member, but of the whole world”. For his part, the president of Gabon Ali Bongo asserted that “Queen Elizabeth II was a great friend of Africa and Africa was affectionate with her”.

Despite her continued push for the Commonwealth, which includes 21 African nations, not everyone on the continent celebrates Elizabeth II’s reign. Regardless of the messages of regret sent to the Royal Family by the main heads of state of the continent, not a few sectors in the different African countries recalled in recent hours that British colonization -and the suffering of millions of people associated with it- it was done in the name of the monarchy.

Be that as it may, Elizabeth II is now history, and her long reign began unexpectedly in the forests of Kenya. “I speak to you today six thousand miles from the country where I was born. But I am certainly not six thousand miles from home. Every time I have traveled to these beautiful lands of South Africa and Rhodesia, my parents, my sister and I have reached the hearts of its people and have felt as much at home as if we had spent our entire lives here”, added the young Princess Elizabeth in her historic South African speech.


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