Thursday, April 9, 2015

Rhodes's legacy

There was a statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the foot of the steps leading to the centre of the University of Cape Town.  He was honoured because he had donated the land on which the University sits.  It is a magnificent site, probably one of the most dramatic sites for any university in the world, nestling under the crags of Devil's Peak with a view across the Cape Flats to distant mountains, with oceans to left and right.
However, Rhodes’ statue has become, in the words of one Stephen Grootes, the “equivalent of a racist swastika.” Worse, he says the Rhodes scholarships “were really set up with the intent of creating more white men like him with the same ideals.” Unfortunately Grootes shows himself to be as bigoted and racist as he claims Rhodes was.  Any reading of Rhodes’ Will shows him to be surprisingly wise, prescient and even pacifist.

For instance, clause 24 of the Will is unequivocal – “No student shall be qualified or disqualified for election to a Scholarship on account of his race or religious opinions.” For 1901 this was an extraordinary qualification – racism was rife at that time.  Five years later a man from central Africa named Ota Benga was exhibited in the monkey house of the Bronx zoo as part of an exhibit on evolution.”[1] No-one who has any sense of history and the way in which what is “normal” can change can fail to recognize that Rhodes was way ahead of his time. Clearly Rhodes did not want to create “more white men like him with the same ideals.”

There is a thesis popular in politically correct circles that Rhodes did not mean “race” when he said “race”.  The thesis holds that Rhodes understood “race” to define other classes of whites like boers. If this were so, then Rhodes was a racist as now understood. 

I think the argument is nonsense.  First, by saying “qualified or disqualified” he made it quite clear that he wanted the scholarships to be fully inclusive.  Secondly, his inclusiveness extended to religion.  We need to remember that anti-semitism was rife at that stage.  Indeed, Rhodes paid £5,338,650 for the assets of Kimberley Central, the largest cheque ever written, so consolidating the Kimberley mine. Part of the deal required Barney Barnato of Kimberley Central to become a member of the Kimberley Club, which up to that time had excluded Jews such as Barnato. So for Rhodes to call on the Trustees to ignore “religious opinions” was as wise as his call to ignore race.

Apollon Davidson quotes Rhodes as saying "I could never accept the position that we should disqualify a human being on account of his colour." Further, the Rhodes Trustees chose the first Black Rhodes Scholar only five years after Rhodes' death, in 1907, so they certainly did not view "race" any differently. So saying that he did not mean "race" as we understand it, but some politically correct interpretation of his meaning of "race", is absolute nonsense. And just to clinch things, it helps to remember that when Rhodes was elected Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, over 40% of the electorate were non-white - on a qualified franchise, to be true, but enfranchised nevertheless.

Of course, he failed to recognize the potential of women, but he was a man of his times.  Britain only gave a qualified franchise to women in 1918 and full franchise in 1928.

That he wanted men with ideals is undoubted. Clause 23 of the Will says that students “elected to the Scholarships shall not be merely bookworms - -.” Of course, they had to have achieved excellence in literary and scholarly things, and in “manly outdoor sports.” They had to show qualities of “truth, courage, devotion to duty, sympathy for and protection of the weak, kindliness, unselfishness and fellowship.” Above all Rhodes sought “moral force of character and instincts to lead” because he believed this would guide the Scholar “to esteem the performance of public duties as his highest aim.” 

The Scholars have borne out Rhodes’ hopes.  The list of past Scholars includes a host of household names, many of whom have attained the peak of academic excellence, or become leading jurists and scientists.  Among them there is, of course, Bill Clinton, 42nd US President, and the forthcoming election may well have a Rhodes Scholar candidate for US Presidency, Bobby Jindal, who was conceived in India, imported into America in his mother’s womb, and is presently the Governor of Louisiana.  I know of no other scholarship which has had such a history of success in identifying future leaders of the global society.

But I was really struck by Rhodes’ foresight when I came to a late codicil. “I leave five yearly scholarships at Oxford - - to students of German birth, the scholars to be nominated by the German Emperor - -. The object is that an understanding between the three great powers will render war impossible, and educational relations make the strongest tie.”  This in 1901?  Victoria was still on the throne, and her nephew was the German Emperor. Yet Rhodes foresaw even the possibility of war between the nations, and took such steps as he could to strive for peace. 

Perhaps after all the rage over his duplicitousness towards Lobenguela, Rhodes’ basic pacifist instinct can be recognized.  How else can one understand Lobenguela’s Bayete salute at Rhodes’ burial?

So yes, the Rhodes statue is a reminder of the excesses of colonialism, and that leaves traces of anger even today.  But no, he did much that was good and for that he needs to be remembered.  Move him near the grave of the first Vice-Chancellor of UCT, Sir John Carruthers Beattie.  It is a peaceful spot in the woods, just off the track that Rhodes used to ride on his way to the prominence where his Memorial now stands.


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