Opinionista Lwando Xaso 28 November 2020

‘The Crown’ reminds us that imperialism is the father of apartheid

When the series decided to confront the question of apartheid and Britain’s response to it, I was reminded of the complexity of Queen Elizabeth’s role and imperialism.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

If you devour the series The Crown on Netflix every time a new season drops then, like me, you have probably watched all 10 episodes by now. And if you are South African, then episode eight, titled “Catfight” might have struck a chord – the wrong chord. If you haven’t yet watched episode eight, stop reading now to avoid spoilers.

The Crown is a series that dramatises the history of the British royal family. It is grounded in the reality of each era that each season covers but, of course, there is plenty of embellishment and creative licence. I watch The Crown for many of the same reasons that others may watch soapies. It’s much-needed escapism from the lives of us mere mortals with no tiaras or palaces. But, once in a while, the predicaments in which members of the royal family find themselves in are very relatable – whether its unrequited love, absent parents or sibling rivalry.

However, episode eight broke the spell of escapism and brought me right back to the world of harsh politics. When the series decided to confront the question of apartheid and Britain’s response to it, I was reminded of the complexity of Queen Elizabeth’s role and imperialism.

The episode strains to portray Queen Elizabeth as a virtuous leader who stepped up after the death of her father, King George, in 1952. She was only 26 years old. As a woman, there is a sense of admiration one has for someone that young being thrust on to the pinnacle of power without skipping a beat.

Episode eight starts with a flashback, of the queen recording a speech in South Africa on her 21st birthday in 1947, declaring that her whole life shall be devoted to her Commonwealth family. We then fast forward to the 1980s and South Africa is a powder keg as the internal mass uprising against apartheid brings the crisis to the world’s attention.

Margaret Thatcher, who is prime minister at the time, does not want to get involved but the queen supports the economic sanctions against South Africa being proposed by other Commonwealth countries, including a number of African countries. It seems as if Britain will be the lone dissenter against sanctions due to Thatcher’s indifference.

The episode makes the queen look progressive, noble, empathetic and for the people in contrast to the Iron Lady. Eventually, it is the queen’s view that wins and the episode makes it seem that her actions led directly to the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994. It’s all wrapped up with a bow.

The episode was infuriating and dissatisfying only because it was not that simple. It places the queen squarely on the right side of history. As we know, it’s much murkier than that. To the queen, the British Commonwealth is a family but to its subjects it is a relationship of master and slave. We are not a family. We were conquered and calling us “a family” is a gross distortion and delusional.

The wrath of our anger has mainly been targeted against Afrikaners for apartheid. But apartheid and imperialism are two sides of the same coin. Imperialism is the father of apartheid.

This reality complicates the queen’s place within the South African story. It is not as simple as The Crown would make us believe. It is as complicated as the queen’s crown. I wonder how many of the diamonds in that crown belong to South Africa – and if we will ever get them back. DM168

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  • Hi Lwando. You are right to say The Crown is a ‘soapie’ – it’s a veneer of facts with a lot of speculation. However, to say the Commonwealth is a ‘master slave’ relationship is the gross distortion (could you see the U.K. in it’s current state being the master of anything?). The Commonwealth is a voluntary organisation of independent countries with shared goals – admittedly with its roots in the Empire & with the ultimate aim (as that of the Empire) to improve trade.

    As to Imperialism being the father of apartheid, well, not really. Legalised & institutionalised racism was never a part of the Empire – had S.A. still been a colony in the early 50s apartheid would not have been allowed. Was there racism in the Empire – absolutely. (Did the colonial powers consider themselves superior – of course they did. Why wouldn’t they? They came from countries with centuries of architectural, legal, political & military development & found peoples in huts with spears.) In the British Empire, in theory at least, all colonial subjects were equal under British law. Did this work in practice – almost certainly not. Consider though that most developed European countries had their own form of apartheid – it was called the class system! So native colonials would be classed a ‘lower working’ – the bottom of the social scale. They would be discriminated against but this would have no basis in law.

    Times, opinions & standards change. Maybe if there was still a British Empire its peoples would be eligible for everything a modern welfare state can offer – a free health service, unemployment benefits, free schooling etc. I know many Zimbabweans who would be glad to have the Brits back! Now we have ‘internal colonialism’ where a few exploit the resources of the country for their own enrichment at the expense of the general population. At least the colonial powers improved the infrastructure & made sure the country operated efficiently!

    Consider also how apartheid managed to survive for so long when it was an obvious cloud cuckoo land for whites & a crime against humanity. The answer is communism. This was the great threat to the western world’s way of life from the end of WW2 until the fall of the USSR in the late 80s. America (which to native Americans is an occupying colonial power) & its allies saw S.A. as a powerful bastion against the spread of communism & while openly condemning apartheid was behind the scenes providing the regime with the tools of oppression. It’s no coincidence that the apartheid regime fell soon after the Berlin wall – America pulled the rug!

    BTW the reason Thatcher gave for not supporting sanctions was that she thought sanctions would cause suffering to the peoples of S.A. without necessarily doing much harm to the apartheid government. Mandela was later to say that sanctions absolutely helped bring down the government. We’ll never really know.

  • You are partly right in your comment, however you should read “Apartheid, Britian’s bastard child” by Helen Opperman Lewis and get a true historical background of the problems we have in this country!

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