3. A legacy crumbling legacy

Author: Adekeye Adebajo
Date: 31 March 2021
Publication: Times Literary Supplement (TLS)
Image courtesy of: Jean van der Meulen

Cecil Rhodes set out to achieve immortality by leaving what he claimed would be a 4,000-year legacy. Yet barely 120 years after his death, the legacy is crumbling – in Bishop’s Stortford, Oxford, Grahamstown and Cape Town. As the greatest individual symbol of British imperialism, Rhodes’s memorials constitute a permanent assault on the descendants of his Black victims, and clearly they no longer need to occupy prominent places in his hometown or at universities in England or South Africa. Yet it is critical that his memory not be totally erased. History must be preserved in ways that properly contextualize the atrocities of imperial figures such as Rhodes. His “cult” is still manifest in about thirty biographies, eight novels, six plays and countless statues, films and documentaries. But, even the effort in 2003 to tie his legacy to that of Nelson Mandela appears to be unsustainable in an age of global movements such as “Rhodes Must Fall” and “Black Lives Matter”.

My personal association with the legacy of Cecil Rhodes began in 1990, when I became that year’s only Rhodes Scholar from Nigeria. My uncle Segun Osoba – a radical historian – exclaimed: “That thing is dripping with blood. Cecil Rhodes was a brutal imperialist!” My thoughts were more practical: if the money of a robber-baron who had plundered Africa’s wealth would buy me an education at a world-class institution, then at least a slice of the treasure was returning to the continent. Yet, in Oxford, my stomach churned at dinners at Rhodes House when the assembled dignitaries would turn to a large portrait of the colonialist and raise their glasses to “The Founder”. I made my own silent protest and refused to partake in the strange ritual.

Cecil Rhodes was a white supremacist who committed crimes against humanity. He dispossessed Black people of their ancestral lands in contemporary Zimbabwe and Zambia – formerly Southern and Northern Rhodesia – through aggressive and duplicitous means, killing an estimated 60,000 people, and stealing 3.5 million square miles of southern African real estate. Between 1890 and 1895, Rhodes’s mercenaries – under the patronage of the British South Africa Company – embarked on a savage scorched-earth policy. They pillaged and raped; summarily executed Black prisoners of war; stole farm land and thousands of herds of cattle; and burnt kraals. Tens of thousands of Matabele men, women and children were starved to death. Both Zambia and Zimbabwe removed statues of Rhodes from their streets after independence, though he still lies buried in Zimbabwe’s Matopos Hills.

Rhodes was an often unscrupulous businessman, as well as a crude racist. He infamously said: “I prefer land to n****rs … the natives are like children. They are just emerging from barbarism”. He headed the De Beers mining firm which controlled 90 per cent of the world’s diamonds. Even before apartheid was passed into law in 1948, Rhodes, as the Prime Minister of Cape Colony between 1890 and 1895, instituted its forerunner, introducing segregationist laws in public amenities and disenfranchising many Black citizens. He introduced hut and labour taxes to force Black people into the cash economy; packed over 11,000 black miners into dog-patrolled, wire-protected barracks; and promoted draconian labour laws.

In 2009 I visited the Bishop’s Stortford Museum in Hertfordshire (housed in the building in which Rhodes was born) which provided an interesting dimension to his legacy. African music played in the background of a museum that displayed African axes, shields and other weapons forged by indigenous blacksmiths. African drums and baskets were also on display. There were depictions of slavery and imperialism, and a recognition that Rhodes’s legacy had been contested, even during his own lifetime. Numerous images of Rhodes littered the room. I was told by staff that even though many schoolchildren visited, many English pupils did not learn about Cecil Rhodes in their education. Of far greater interest in the same building was the Rhodes Art complex which offered theatre, comedies and the music of the “Rhodes Rocks” on Fridays. It is this entertainment that sustained the rather quiet museum, and many in the town clearly thought about Rhodes more in terms of entertainment than imperialism. And yet a community activist campaign successfully gathered over 4,000 signatures to change the name of the Rhodes Art complex to South Mill Arts in August 2020. The Rhodes Birthplace Trust also changed its name to the Bishop’s Stortford Museum and Arts Charitable. But I cannot help but feel that a more effective memorialization might have been to rename the complex “The Rhodes Memorial of Imperialism”, and to properly record his crimes against humanity for contemporary and future generations.

Cecil Rhodes dominates Oxford University more than almost any other figure. He left £100,000 (roughly £12.6 million today) in his will for Oriel College, where he studied, to erect a new building. A statue was also built above the college on High Street, towering over memorials to George V and Edward VII. Rhodes House is one of the most grandiose buildings in Oxford, combining Cotswold stone and a classical copper-domed rotunda, with traditional African craftsmanship, including the Great Zimbabwe bird prominently displayed atop the building. The Rhodes House library hosts one of the finest collections on the British Empire and Commonwealth, as well as on American history. At Oxford, Rhodes’s most enduring legacy is the scholarship named for him. About 8,000 scholars – funded from Rhodes’s £3.3 million fortune (about £415 million today) – have studied at Oxford since 1903, in a scheme that excluded women until 1977. The scholarships were clearly designed for white men: half of the Rhodes trustees today remain white and male, while about 90 per cent of the scholarships have gone, disproportionately, to white Americans, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, Rhodesians and South Africans. Rhodes – not reputed to have been a particularly good student – took eight years at Oxford to achieve a “gentleman’s pass”. The university controversially awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1899. Without any apparent irony, Oxford established a Rhodes Chair in Race Relations in 1953.

After the success of the “Rhodes Must Fall” student protests to remove a statue from the University of Cape Town (UCT) in April 2015, Oxford students launched their own “Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford” campaign to transform what they considered to be the university’s institutionally racist culture, with 60 per cent of minority students reportedly feeling unwelcome at the university. 300 student-led protesters also sought to topple Rhodes’s statue at Oriel, having gathered a petition of over 3,000 signatures. Chris Patten, the Chancellor, advised protesting students to consider being educated elsewhere, if they were not happy at Oxford. The protesters initially failed to achieve their goals after Oriel’s six-month “listening campaign” sputtered to a halt, and alumni threatened to withhold funding.  But after five years of sporadic agitation, and in the wake of the global “Black Lives Matter” movement, the college finally agreed to remove the statue, in principle, in 2020. The memorial is due to be moved into a museum by this summer, though some dissenting Oxford dons have thrown their weight behind Robert Jenrick’s legal bid to prevent the removal of such statues.

Rhodes University in South Africa’s Eastern Cape city of Makhanda (formerly, Grahamstown) was founded with funding from the Oxford-based Rhodes Trust in 1904, and still stubbornly bears the name of its benefactor. Rhodes students marched in solidarity with the 2015 “Rhodes Must Fall” UCT protests, calling for a change in the name of their university and a transformation of its Eurocentric curriculum and institutional culture. As the historian Paul Maylam argued in his comprehensive Rhodes University, 1904- 2016: An intellectual, political and cultural history (2017), the anglocentric university had been established to “extend and strengthen the imperial idea in South Africa”. Rhodes’s colonial connections were reinforced by the institution’s commemoration of “Founder’s Day” on September 12: when plundering white “Pioneers” founded Southern Rhodesia. The imperial theme was further reinforced by the large, often prejudiced, presence of white Rhodesian lecturers, administrators and students at the university.

Cecil Rhodes’s personal legacy was also evident at the University, with its values reflecting the criteria of Oxford’s Rhodes scholarships: sports as character-building; a devotion to public service; and a commitment to spreading British values through a “Heaven’s Breed” of white supremacists. Rhodes University, with many Oxbridge-trained academics, was nicknamed “Oxford in the Bush”: both institutions championed imperialism; prioritized classics; took pride in small-group tutorials; segregated men from women; and required gowns at dinners in which Wardens presided at “high tables”. Jimi Adesina, a Nigerian Sociolo y Professor who taught at Rhodes between 2001 and 2011, quipped that, on arrival in Grahamstown, “I could see the bush, but not Oxford”. The institution was frozen in time, a relic of a Victorian past, continuing many practices that Oxford itself had jettisoned. Jackets and ties were worn to class and inside the library until the 1960s; “high tea” was served on manicured lawns into the 1980s. The university was totally disconnected from its local, regional and continental roots.

For much of its existence, Rhodes University willingly maintained social segregation on campus, with its lilywhite Council unanimously refusing to admit Black students in 1933. The institution awarded honorary doctorates to the apartheid education minister, J. H. Viljoen, and its repressive state president, C. R. Swart. Many of its academics and students – with some notable and courageous exceptions – adopted an apolitical “liberalism” that advocated academic freedom without any commitment to social responsibility. For decades, Black university workers were treated badly.

An effort to change the University’s name in 1994 was overwhelmingly defeated in its Senate, though the institution had removed a bust of its namesake from its main entrance by 1999. Nelson Mandela received an honorary doctorate from Rhodes in 2002. But only in 2001 – nearly a century after its birth – did Rhodes University “discover” Africa, acknowledging its geographical location in its vision statement. By 2012, half of its students were Black, though the institutional culture still remained oppressively white. The battle over curriculum transformation was led by students in protests in 2015 and 2016. Even though a strong cohort of Nigerian, Kenyan, Zimbabwean and Basotho academics were teaching at Rhodes by the 2000s, many appeared to continue the Eurocentric traditions of the past and failed radically to transform the syllabus. In 2017, while distancing itself from its benefactor’s imperialism, the Black-led Rhodes University Council voted 15 9 to keep its name, citing the issues of costs, brand name and potential loss of alumni funding.

The University of Cape Town moved to Rhodes’s Groote Schuur estate in 1928. The imperialist had wanted to build a university on the foothills of Table Mountain, and UCT was the posthumous fulfilment of this dream. A bust of Rhodes stood proudly on the university’s upper campus for over eight decades. The grandiloquent Rhodes Memorial is also within the university campus. UCT’s main hall in which graduation ceremonies take place was financed by the Rhodes Trust, and named after Rhodes’s rapacious lieutenant, Leander Jameson.

Like Rhodes University, UCT was slow to admit Black students, accepting only forty by 1937, and figures remained low into the 1980s. Even with these paltry numbers, the South African historian Howard Phillips demonstrated in his impressive UCT under Apartheid (2019) how the university practised social segregation against Black students and workers on campus, colluding with, and caving in to, the apartheid government’s segregationist policies. In an infamous incident in 1968 – for which UCT later apologized – its Council buckled under pressure from the apartheid regime, and withdrew its earlier offer of a Senior Lecturership to the Cambridge-educated Black South African academic, Archie Mafeje. The university thus rhetorically defended academic freedom in order to perpetuate white privilege rather than to protect Black rights.

Connecting Rhodes University and UCT was Harry Oppenheimer, the chair of the Cecil Rhodes-affiliated Anglo-American Corporation for twenty-five years until 1982. He delivered the Rhodes commemoration lecture at Rhodes University in 1970, disingenuously condoning the excesses of the racist imperialist in his dealings with “tribal, barbarous people”. Oppenheimer was also Chancellor of UCT from 1967 to 1999, and regarded Africa as having been “backward” until the Europeans arrived to “civilize” it. Some UCT students demonstrated against his “racist capitalism” and exploitation of miners. UCT’s Institute of African Studies is, however, still named after Oppenheimer.

UCT students led a determined two-month campaign in March/April 2015 that eventually toppled a statue of Rhodes that had been prominently displayed on its campus. This was a bid to “decolonize” what the protesters saw as the university’s racist legacy and to develop a more inclusive curriculum across the disciplines. The students ridiculed the university’s self-description as an Afropolitan “gateway to Africa”, noting that 70 per cent of its professoriate remained white, and that it had never hired a single Black female professor. In July 2020, the statue of Rhodes in the Memorial on the UCT campus was decapitated. The university’s main hall was also renamed Sarah Baartman Hall (after a South African female performer who was widely objectified in Europe) in December 2018, thus removing the name of Leander Jameson.

It is important to note that the controversial co-joining of Cecil Rhodes and Nelson Mandela under the Mandela Rhodes Foundation in 2003 continues to confound many. While Rhodes was the greatest imperialist of the nineteenth century, Mandela was one of the greatest liberation heroes of the twentieth. Whereas Rhodes was an expansionist empire-builder, Mandela was a nation-builder who did the most to unite a South Africa divided for decades by colonialism and apartheid, and which was seemingly on the brink of a racial war. While Rhodes pursued a mission civilisatrice in Africa, Mandela embodied a “prophetic” leadership which eventually freed his people from the bondage of apartheid.

Critics have further noted that the conciliatory Mandela may have ended up doing long-term damage during his five-year presidency (1994 99) by papering over racial differences and declining to force white South Africans to show more contrition to the largely Black victims of apartheid. “Rhodes Must Fall” student protesters have often observed that many of South Africa’s 5 million whites continue to enjoy privileged lifestyles, while the national high priest absolved them of their sins without a proper confession and penance. Mandela’s legacy in liberating his country is secure, but the success of his efforts at national reconciliation will only endure if rapid progress can be made to narrow the country’s grotesque socioeconomic inequalities, which have made South Africa among the most unequal societies in the world. History will, however, doubtless be much kinder to Mandela’s nation-building than to Rhodes’s empire-building.

Adekeye Adebajo directs the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation in South Africa. He is the author of The Trial of Cecil John Rhodes , 2021