/ 26 July 2006

A most unsavoury rehabilitation

When I won the Rhodes scholarship from Nigeria to study at Oxford University in 1990, an alarmed uncle exclaimed: ”That thing is dripping with blood. Cecil Rhodes was a bloody imperialist!”

My thoughts at the time were more practical: to get a good education at a world-class institution. If an infamous robber baron’s money was paying for it, then at least a slice of the stolen treasure was returning to Africa. But I remember my stomach churning at Rhodes House dinners, when the assembled dignitaries would turn to a large portrait of the colonialist and raise their glasses to ”the Founder” — a strange ritual in which I refused to take part.

Still struggling to come to terms with my own personal discomfort with this association a decade later, I was shocked to discover the creation of the Mandela/Rhodes Foundation in South Africa in 2002. The Rhodes Trust in Oxford contributed £10-million over a decade to scholarships, child healthcare and sporting facilities to disadvantaged communities. I wondered, however, whether this was not a tragic perversion of a genuine African hero. As Paul Maylam, the author of a recent excellent book The Cult of Rhodes noted: ”The arch-imperialist colonizer of the nineteenth century was being conjoined with the great anti-imperialist freedom fighter of the twentieth century.”

Mandela — one of the greatest moral figures in the 20th century — was effectively rehabilitating a grotesque and cruel imperialist of the Victorian age. In launching the new foundation, Mandela noted: ”Combining our name with that of Cecil John Rhodes in this initiative is to signal the closing of the circle and the bringing together of two strands in our history.”

It is shocking to visit Rhodes House in Oxford today, and to see Mandela’s picture with a white bust of Rhodes lurking behind him, as well as a painting of both of them hanging side by side. Why have Africans accepted this monstrosity? Has Mandela perhaps not taken reconciliation too far in rehabilitating a figure that Africans should have condemned to the pit-latrine of history?

Rhodes, who died in 1902, undoubtedly remains the greatest individual historical symbol of imperialism. Independent Zimbabwe tore down his statues after independence in 1980. Zambia toppled a statue of Rhodes on achieving independence in 1964, and both countries — formerly named Southern and Northern Rhodesia — sought to remove the imperial stain by re-baptising themselves.

South Africa has not yet started a proper debate on the numerous Rhodes memorials that litter its post-apartheid landscape. Today, Rhodes’s obsessive quest to achieve immortality can be seen in Cape Town (statues, street names and a grandiloquent memorial at the University of Cape Town); Kimberley (a statue on horseback); and Grahamstown (Rhodes University). An effort to change the name of Rhodes University in 1994 was soundly defeated in the university senate.

Rhodes used his economic wealth to buy political power; and used political power to protect and extend his wealth. He headed the De Beers mining firm and dispossessed black people of their ancestral lands in modern-day Zimbabwe and Zambia through brutal and often treacherous means, stealing 3,5-million square miles of real estate in one of the most ignominious ”land-grabs” in modern history. Rhodes was, of course, a crude racist. His infamous statements include: ”I prefer land to niggers”; ”the natives are like children. They are just emerging from barbarism”; and ”one should kill as many niggers as possible”.

Long before apartheid was passed into law, Rhodes was its forerunner, taking away the vote from black people in what had hitherto been considered the ”liberal” Cape Colony; forcibly removing blacks to native reserves (through the Glen Grey Act of 1894); and passing draconian labour laws (including the legal flogging of ”disobedient” black labourers) that facilitated the continued supply of human fodder to his mines.

The Rhodes scholarship is the most enduring legacy of this arch-imperialist. The South African scholarships have been particularly controversial since they have effectively served as a form of white ”affirmative action” for a century. Students from schools listed in Rhodes’s will — Diocesan College (”Bishops”); St Andrew’s College; the South African College Schools (SACS); and Stellenbosch boys’ high school (Paul Roos Gymnasium) — that neither admitted blacks nor girls until the 1980s, continued to obtain four of the nine scholarships.

Only in 1976 were the first black Rhodes scholar (Ramuchandran Govender) and the first woman Rhodes scholar (Sheila Niven) chosen. Four black scholars were elected in the first 80 years of a scheme that still appears to be more albinocratic than meritocratic. Even today, there is no systematic plan in place to attract the ”best and brightest” black talent to the scholarships.

Based on Rhodes’s sordid historical legacy, a debate on the wisdom of yoking the saintly Mandela to a colossal imperialist seems to be long overdue.

Adekeye Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution at the University of Cape Town