25. Cecil John Rhodes on trial: the book everyone’s talking about

Author: Jane Vorster
Date: 26 March 2021
News24_YOU Magazine

When he was offered a Rhodes Scholarship in 1990 to study at Oxford, Adekeye Adebajo was told by an alarmed uncle that Cecil Rhodes was a “brutal imperialist” and that his scholarship was “dripping with blood”.

Despite this Adekeye, who hails from Nigeria, decided that by accepting he’d at least be ensuring that a “slice of the treasure” that Rhodes had plundered would be returning to the continent.

“I felt that I should accept the crumbs from the great imperialist’s gluttonous feast, but promised myself that having completed my studies, I would bite the hand that fed me by pursuing anti-imperial causes,” he writes.

And with his book, The Trial of Cecil John Rhodes, he does just that –  almost 120 years after Rhodes’ death he has found the way to put the controversial figure, who many see as the ultimate representation of colonialism on trial for mass murder, racism; grand theft of Africa’s natural resources and land, exploitation and enslavement of African workers, among other crimes.

What the book is about:

Set over five days in an African Hereafter called “After Africa”. this story revolves around the British South African imperialist Cecil Rhodes, awakening in an After African Limbo after being asleep for 120 years.

Guided by Ghanaian writer Efua Sutherland, he is taken on a tour of After Africa’s five heavens, experiencing Africa’s great civilisations, its Nobel laureates, its writers, its musicians and its sporting legends.

The novella centres on the grand trial of Cecil Rhodes in the fifth heaven for five crimes committed in the Herebefore. Two Counsel for Damnation – Olive Schreiner and Stanlake Samkange – face off against two Counsel for Salvation – Nelson Mandela and Harry Oppenheimer.

The seven judges from Africa’s five sub-regions and its North America, Caribbean and South American diasporas are also well-known figures: Ruth First, Wangari Maathai, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Patrice Lumumba, Taslim Elias, Maya Angelou and Toussaint l’Ouverture.

This is not just a man on trial, but the very system of imperialism itself. Cecil John Rhodes had been asleep. Still wearing a crumpled tweed jacket and white flannel trousers, he got to his feet slowly, and tried to look around, oppressed by the absolute darkness that surrounded him.

He imagined vividly that he was in a tomb, with a colossal weight of stone above, threatening to bury him. He groped around until he stumbled painfully into a staircase that was as rough and cold to the touch as stone. He began to make his way upwards, feeling his way in the dark. He made a decision and began to grope his way. It was not long before light glowed dimly on the clammy walls, and then he heard distant screams that grew louder.

Who is Adekeye Adebajo?

Professor Adekeye Adebajo was born and raised in Nigeria and obtained his doctorate from Oxford in England as a Rhodes scholar. He currently heads up the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg and is the author of six books on African history and politics.

Book extract: Adekeye Adebajo on why he wanted to put Rhodes on trial

My own personal association with the legacy of Cecil Rhodes began in 1990 on winning the single Rhodes Scholarship from Nigeria to study at Oxford University in England. An alarmed uncle – a radical historian – exclaimed at the time: “That thing is dripping with blood. Cecil Rhodes was a brutal imperialist!”

My thoughts at the time were more practical: to get a good education at a world-class institution, and if the money of a robber-baron who had plundered Africa’s wealth was paying for it, then at least a slice of the treasure was returning to the continent. I felt that I should accept even the crumbs from the great imperialist’s gluttonous feast, but promised myself that having completed my studies, I would bite the hand that fed me by pursuing anti-imperial causes and eventually “trying” the self-styled “Colossus”: Cecil John Rhodes. This political novella is thus the fulfilment of that promise I made to myself 30 years ago.

I remember my stomach churning at dinners at Rhodes House in Oxford when the assembled dignitaries would turn to a large portrait of the imperialist and raise their glasses to “The Founder.” My own silent protest involved refusing to partake in this strange ritual of the most secret of societies. Having obtained the doctoral Golden Fleece from the city of “dreaming spires” and “lost causes” in 1999, I have had two decades to contribute in a small way to anti-colonial initiatives. I have sought to promote Pan-African knowledge-production, the quest for Pax Africana, and a more integrated continent: pursuits that that were the very anti-thesis of Cecil Rhodes’s vision of an imperial Pax Britannica which resulted in spreading death and destruction from the Cape to Cairo.

Moving to South Africa to head the Centre for Conflict Resolution (CCR) in Cape Town in 2003, I was shocked to discover the creation of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation in the same year as my arrival in the province where Cecil Rhodes had been prime minister for five years. The Rhodes Trust in Oxford contributed £10 million, in the first decade of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation, for African scholars to study at South African universities; to support child healthcare; and to provide sporting facilities for disadvantaged communities. But despite the positive impact that these funds have doubtless had, I persistently wondered about the wisdom of this monstrous marriage between the nineteenth century’s greatest imperialist and one of the twentieth century’s greatest moral figures. These are some of the issues that motivated me to write this book.

Jane Vorster wrote for YOU Magazine.