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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Wild rats still enjoying running wheels.