The dark colonial past of the Zumas

Andrew Donaldson writes on the EFF and RET's response to the death of Queen Elizabeth


THE death of Elizabeth II has drawn widespread comment on a colonial legacy that doesn’t appear to have been of concern to many of Her Majesty’s loyal subjects. Some of this chatter has unfortunately been shrill and ungracious. This in turn has prompted a response that those who attack the monarchy do so from a position that lacks intellectual rigour. 

This however is not always the case. 

One detractor who has gained notoriety for her views is Uju Anya, who teaches at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, According to her CV, Anya is a researcher in “applied linguistics, critical sociolinguistics and critical discourse studies primarily examining race, gender, sexual, and social class identities in new language learning through the experiences of African-American students”. 

In other words, a resentment studies professor, as one columnist has described her

As reports emerged on Thursday that the queen was in her final hours, Anya posted the following on Twitter: “I heard the chief monarch of a thieving raping genocidal empire is finally dying. May her pain be excruciating.”

The response, as expected, was one of overwhelming anger. Anya was excoriated for her insensitivity. Still, she doubled down on her position: “If anyone expects me to express anything but disdain for the monarch who supervised a government that sponsored the genocide that massacred and displaced half my family and the consequences of which those alive today are still trying to overcome, you can keep wishing upon a star.”

Anya’s animus harks back to the Nigerian civil war (1967-1970), a conflict she claims was “sponsored” by the queen and which saw government troops taking up “British-supplied arms against civilians, razing whole villages and scorching ancestral lands [in secessionist Biafra]”. 

Anya, who was born six years after her mother fled the war, told the Guardian this week: “We lost half of our relatives. That’s the legacy of this war. It was a genocide, a slaughter, a holocaust.”

At the time, the Labour government of Harold Wilson, said to be the queen’s favourite prime minister, had considerable interest in the preservation of the status quo in Nigeria. The war there broke out just a week before the blockage of the Suez Canal in the Six Day War had forced oil tankers from the Middle East to reroute via the Cape, thus raising the price of oil from the Persian Gulf. Nigerian oil was cheaper and, in 1967, accounted for 30 per cent of Britain’s oil imports. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

After an initial neutral stance, Britain threw its weight behind the Nigerian government and increased its supply of arms to its troops. Following the queen’s death, Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari, who fought on the side of the government, praised the royal family as “a very strong ally even in the midst of our difficult time during the Biafran war; they stood for the indivisibility of the Nigerian state, supported and ensured that we overcame that problem”.

Be that as it may, Alexander Pope’s adage that a little learning is a dangerous thing is nevertheless applicable where some of the queen’s South African critics are concerned. There was, for example, this post on Twitter concerning “The Great Star of Africa”, a Crown jewel allegedly “stolen” from South Africa, and the demand that it be returned:

“The diamond is with $400million and South Africa has 60 million people. Which means we can give everyone $1million and we would still have $340million left.” (sic)

Other comment was as dispiriting. “We do not mourn the death of Elizabeth,” the Economic Freedom Fighters declared in a statement, “because to us her death is a reminder of a very tragic period in this country and Africa’s history. Britain, under the leadership of the royal family, took over control of this territory that would become South Africa in 1795 from Batavian control, and took permanent control of the territory in 1806.

“From that moment onwards, native people of this land have never known peace, nor have they ever enjoyed the fruits of the riches of this land, riches which were and still are utilized for the enrichment of the British royal family and those who look like them.”

Like other such pronouncements, much of the EFF’s statement is concerned with the colonial expansion that took place in the era of Elizabeth II’s great-great grandmother, Queen Victoria, and the earlier British monarchs. The aggrieved hysteria is noteworthy, and not only for the clumsiness of Redshirt rhetoric: 

“… our interaction Britain under the leadership of the British royal family has been one of pain and suffering, of death and dispossession, and of dehumanization of African people … [The queen] willingly benefited from the wealth that was attained from the exploitation and murder of millions of people across the world. The British Royal family stands on the shoulders of millions of slaves who were shipped away from the continent to serve the interests of racist white capital accumulation, at the center of which lies the British royal family.” (sic)

The sentiment was enthusiastically endorsed by the darlings of radical economic transformation. In his response, numpty Carl Niehaus tweeted: “The EFF is not my political party, but this is an excellent statement. I wish my beloved liberation movement @MYANC could have published such a politically sound statement. Sadly under the sell out reign of the #PhalaPhalaFarm dollar mattress king that is a forlorn hope.”

The fighters were also warmly congratulated by Dudu Zuma-Sambudla, who retweeted their statement, with a note of thanks. She later retweeted a post stating “If [the queen] was African, the Headlines would be ‘The World’s Longest Serving Dictator is Dead’,” adding “This Is A Fact.”

I wonder, though, if the shrieking violet is aware of her own family’s shameful colonial past; that, when it comes to the pain, suffering, death, dispossession and dehumanisation of African people, her ancestors served the British empire by betraying the Zulu nation for material gain. This, too, is a fact. 

In 1879, the British defeated King Cetshawayo’s impis, thus destroying one of southern Africa’s last major precolonial polities. The British army may have been the most powerful military force at the time but, as the historian Jacob Dlamini has pointed out, it took “far more than their sophisticated weapons and training” to beat the Zulus. They needed Zulu traitors — and there were no shortage of these at the time. Dlamini writes:

“Among those who collaborated with the British against Cetshwayo were the ancestors of one Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma. Far from helping build and protect the Zulu kingdom, the Zumas helped the British destroy it. For their exertions, the Zumas, like many other Africans who collaborated with the British, were rewarded with land that had belonged to the Zulu kingdom until 1879.”

That land, of course, is Nkandla. 

Dlamini cites the work of the historian Meghan Healy-Clancy and anthropologist Jason Hickel. In their bookEkhaya: The politics of home in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa (University of KwaZulu-Natal, 2014), they state that Nkandla is “the spoil of collaboration”, given to the Zumas for their role in the defeat of the Zulu kingdom.

Shortly after winning the 2015 Alan Paton Prize for his bookAskari: A Story of Collaboration and Betrayal in the Anti-Apartheid Struggle (Jacana, 2014), Dlamini reminded Business Day readers that Accused Number One is the “spawn of collaborators” and that it perhaps time South Africans “gave him his due — and made his collaborationist ancestry a big part of the story about Nkandla”

Better still, is it not time that the property is expropriated without compensation? 

It’s true the place is not worth much despite the millions that have been squandered on the dubious “upgrades” there. But its seizure by the state would be a powerful symbolic gesture in righting the sins of the colonial past. 

Reopened as an agricultural college or maybe just a backpackers’ lodge, it could even be renamed after Queen Elizabeth II. This would only be fitting and proper.

Other royal observations

Jacob Zuma’s relationship with Buckingham Palace was not a happy one. There was much derision, for example, in the British press when, in early 2010, it was announced that the queen would be hosting the Thief-in-Chief on a state visit. At the time, the Financial Times suggested that it would be tempting to depict the visit as a farce: 

“When he came to London just over two years ago, at the height of his battle for the ANC leadership, only a few bankers would see him. He roamed central London one evening all but barred even from the South African High Commission in Trafalgar Square. Now he returns as the most powerful man in sub-Saharan Africa to all the pomp that Britain can offer.”

Alas, not that kind of pomp

As Stephen Robinson, writing in the Daily Mail, put it, “Jacob Zuma is a sex-obsessed bigot with four wives and 35 children. So why is Britain fawning over this vile buffoon”

Why indeed? There was some suggestion that, as the “pre-eminent regional powerbroker”, he would be of some assistance in helping the UK deal with the “persistent headache” that was Robert Mugabe. 

There was little chance of that happening, though — especially as the Butternut largely approved of the land invasions north of the Limpopo. What’s more, he risked offending his hosts by complaining on the record that he was fed up with being patronised by a country with a hypocritical attitude towards its former colonies.

The queen’s relationship with Nelson Mandela may have been another source of resentment; uBaba could never hope for anything that matched the warmth of that friendship. 

Mandela, we have heard on several occasions in the past few days, was perhaps the only statesman who regularly addressed the queen by her first name. The former prime minister Gordon Brown, for example, recalled Madiba answering a telephone call from the Palace: “Hello, Elizabeth! How’s the Duke?”

Lastly, there has been much chatter that the queen was the world’s longest serving monarch. Not so, I’m afraid. That honour — if that’s what it is — goes to France’s Louis XIV, who ruled for 72 years and 110 days. But seeing as he was a few months shy of his fifth birthday when he was crowned in May 1643, this does seem like a case of the French once again cheating.

Be that as it may, the queen’s 70-year reign has been one of momentous change, a time in which the world’s greatest empire was effectively dismantled. Over the decades, 15 prime ministers have served under her, there have been 13 American presidents and, as some here have sneered, 61 different Italian governments. 

Which somehow misses the point that these were leaders that, for better or for worse, were elected by the people, for the people.