New African editor Anver Versi reflects on the reign of the late Elizabeth II.
As I sat down to write this column I could not help reflecting that throughout the week past, which I had spent in the company of a group of mayors from various African cities who had been invited for an urbanisation study tour in Denmark, the death and funeral of the Queen was never far from the thoughts of many of the delegates I mingled with.
They say that the funeral rites of the longest-serving British Monarch (and head of the Commonwealth) were watched by more people around the world than any other single event – including the World Cup.
What was just as astonishing was that hundreds of thousands of people queued up, in some cases, for over 24 hours to be able to pay their respects to the 96-year-old monarch as she lay in state. Among the very first to form the queue, two days before the event, was a lady from Ghana.
Indeed Africans, at least in the diaspora, were very prominent in mourning for the Queen. Several said that they had met the lady on one of her multitude of visits to hospitals and social and artistic centres and that those brief interactions had made them feel ‘very special’ and the memory was the brightest spark of what for many were otherwise dark and dismal years.
I must admit I was myself thrilled to have met her many decades ago when I was involved in a London-based ethical events charity. Her presence, her charm, her focus and the obvious delight she took in meeting you indeed made you feel very special.
Africa was very close to her heart – after all, she became Queen when she was on safari with her husband the Duke of Edinburgh, in Kenya. She was to visit Kenya three more times. In all she visited 20 African countries, including making a trip to Ghana – then under Kwame Nkrumah in 1956 and against the wishes of all her advisers.
Africa by and large returned her affection and she was always a very popular visitor. As our columnist Lord Peter Hain pointed out in an earlier piece, she was on first-name terms with Nelson Mandala, a familiarity she shared with no-one else. Incidentally, after her first visit to South Africa before she became Queen in 1947, she never set foot in that country again until the end of Apartheid, when she was joyously welcomed by President Nelson Mandela in 1995.
But history is a harsh judge. While she was above politics and had no real power – except that of private persuasion – the British Empire committed horrible atrocities in her name, including the internment of over 1.5m Kenyans into Gestapo-like camps in the same area where she had learnt of her father’s death and her own elevation to the British throne.
As the ancient Persian poet, Omar Khayyam put it: “The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ / Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line / Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”
While she did not write the history of the time, she was a product of it and many have found it hard to forgive her for this. Nevertheless, eventually the British were forced to acknowledge their guilt and paid out millions in compensation to survivors of the pogrom. Insiders say Queen Elizabeth exerted considerable pressure quietly to ensure this – but because her weekly meetings with British PMs are kept secret we shall never know that truth.
While she could not go back and change history, she knew she could influence the future, even if within her limited capacity in terms of policy and she set about doing so with gusto. Perhaps we should also stop mourning the past and move on,
Better part of human nature
What I found most moving and thought-provoking was that here was a lady who had no political power, who led no armies into battle or countries out of crisis; who was not a writer or a poet or an inventor or healer, yet she ruled the hearts and minds of billions.
Her power lay in what she symbolised – the better part of human nature.
As long as she lived, there was a feeling that no matter how dire the state of the world, or how incompetent, corrupt and even vicious the current crop of leadership in many countries is, the old, solid, time-tested values and virtues would remain intact. With her passing, many mourned for the loss of this central core of their lives.
Hence the age-old cry is: The Queen (in this case) is dead; long live the King. The centre must be occupied, it must never be left vacant.
But one has to wonder if our cynical age can produce another who can occupy that place in quite the same way and style that Queen Elizabeth ll did – or whether we have seen the very last of an age that is gone, never to return and if that means we’ll be the poorer for it.