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The legacy of Cecil John Rhodes

When I was growing up in South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) it was hard not to be conscious of the influence of Cecil John Rhodes. I went to two schools and a university named in his honour. In one of the schools the entrance held a life-size statue of the man looking into the distance, and we used to sing a patriotic song based on his life: “Look not down on the road in front, but lift your eyes ahead”. For a while we lived close to the railway line he had built leading up to the Victoria Falls, which was part of his project to create a Cape to Cairo railway line. We could hear the steam trains through the night hissing and puffing. Often we would drive the 100 miles to the Falls and cross the railway bridge over the gorge. Rhodes had decreed that the bridge should be constructed close enough to the Falls that passengers would feel the spray. We were occasional visitors to Rhodes’ grave in the Matobo hills, and regularly used to walk in the surrounding countryside he loved (which had its fair share of poisonous snakes and intimidating baboons). In later life, Gail and I have visited the cottage in Muizenberg, near Cape Town, where Rhodes spent his final days and died (aged just 48 in 1902).


Rhodes created the infrastructure (especially the railway) for economic development and used his fortune, amassed through diamond mining, to pump prime investment in the country named after him. The estate he left has been used for many good causes. All that must be judged a positive. But oh boy! he left an awful legacy of destructive racism. Although there are some statements he made which can be interpreted as liberal, he was unashamedly racist – even to the point of arguing that it was the British with their descendants (not simply white people) who should control the African continent. Historians argue that he set the stage for Apartheid.


Can we excuse Rhodes’ racism on the grounds that he was a man of his time? After all, in America and Australia, for example, the treatment of the native population by white settlers was as bad, if not worse, than in Southern Africa. But I don’t think we can be that generous, and, in any case, two (or more) wrongs don’t make a right. In his own day there were voices raised against his racist imperialism. He had a worthwhile and justifiable vision of a great long railway line –yes – but he lacked a vision for the present and future humanity for he had made himself responsible. And he claimed to know that what he was doing was God’s will. He took the view that God was in the process of evolving a superior race to promote the values of Justice, Liberty and Peace. “I think it is clear that He (God) would like me to do what He is doing Himself. And as He is manifestly fashioning the English-speaking race as the chosen instrument... He must obviously wish me to do what I can to give as much scope and power to that race as possible” he is reported (by a sympathiser) to have said. Wow! This is the sort of dangerous nonsense the Nazis believed!


But tomorrow the blog looks at a softer side of the man!




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