‘HISTORICAL figures like Rhodes do not really matter much any more’. `Monuments [are] rather meaningless’.[1] Ten years after these words of Paul Maylam’s were published, high-profile protest at the University of Cape Town led to the removal of Rhodes’ brooding statue, while the name of Grahamstown’s university was being seriously reconsidered. Before renewal of xenophobic attacks captured the headlines, the name of Rhodes occupied prime spot in the printed and electronic media. Suddenly, he seemed to matter a great deal.

As Maylam’s excellent work of historiographic analysis shows, Rhodes has long been considered as paradox and enigma. But this is manufactured opinion, created mystery: Rhodes was outstanding for his mediocrity, fashioned into celebrity status that lasted half a century after his death by those with an imperialist agenda. He was a rapacious, opportunistic, exploitative capitalist well acquainted with shady and duplicitous dealings. And he was an overt and unashamed racist whose most infamous comment was: ‘I prefer land to niggers’.[2] Ultimately, there is little evidence that Rhodes was interested in anything more than profit for his own self-glorification and desire for immortality; his political career was dedicated to these limited ends. Maylam sums up thus: ‘I find little to redeem him. I have not come across a sentence spoken or written by him that is inspiring or uplifting’.[3] Yet, ‘no southern African figure has been more written about’.[4]

Rhodes was not without contemporary critics, although many of them muted their opinions and tried to present supposedly balanced assessments that have effectively whitewashed his record. He appeared in many fictional works as a device to avoid libel action. However, Henry Labouchere called him an ‘Empire jerry-builder‘; G.K. Chesterton said that he ‘invoked slaughter [and] violated justice’; Evelyn Waugh, describing him as a visionary, commented that ‘all he saw was hallucination’.[5]  Stuart Cloete, who in the 1930s compared him to Hitler, had a point: both were mediocrities given credence by reactionary movements that led to much loss of life and property, although Rhodes’ culpability is clearly minor compared with that of the Nazi leader.

The quest for immortality was rewarded by a cult that suited the British imperial agenda of the first half of the twentieth century. And it resulted in very public memorials that were essentially fraudulent, although several (like Cape Town’s Rhodes Memorial and the grave in Zimbabwe’s Matopos) became places of reverence, even deification, and pilgrimage. Rhodes was a man of many ideas, a high proportion of them infantile fantasies. But he was no thinker or intellectual, as implied by some sculptors, and he often relied on the inspiration or actions of others for his apparent successes. Though portrayed as a horseman, he was an indifferent rider and physically unimpressive. Perhaps his greatest success was to help create his own mystique.

How is it that history has only caught up with Rhodes in South Africa in 2015? In Zimbabwe, the grave aside, his memorialisation ceased soon after independence in 1980. Maylam provides two compelling reasons: desperate for immortality, he successfully cultivated a range of people who would sustain his memory; and his wealth and the way it was bequeathed produced a much-sought-after brand that was marketed in a way that discouraged too many awkward questions.

A man of limited intellect, Rhodes would not have qualified for one of his eponymous scholarships. His forte, entrepreneurship, was not included as an attribute of successful candidates. Over the years the scholarships have become associated with academic excellence and much prized, not only relegating Rhodes’ deplorable record to the background but enabling a link with the name of Nelson Mandela. The list of beneficiaries of Rhodes’ ill-gotten wealth contains some surprising names: ‘the “brand” has triumphed’[6] by providing historical amnesia and temporary amnesty. Rhodes University’s connection with its benefactor is purely financial.

There is every reason why memorials to Rhodes, actual or symbolic, should not form part of the present-day South African landscape. But nor is there justification for unseemly behaviour and unlawful destruction or meaningless rhetoric and sloganeering. It is worth remembering that Rhodes is very much a figure of our times. His entrepreneurial methods would sit easily with modern predatory capitalism and globalisation, with its reliance on cheap labour and deprivation of workers’ rights. He would also be comfortable with the vacuous celebrity culture of today, in which people of minimal achievement and overweening mediocrity are elevated to extraordinary and undeserved heights.

Should reminders of past evils be expunged from public space and popular consciousness, especially where they raise questions about contemporary issues? This should surely be a matter not of demolition, but of maintaining awareness of both past and present injustice.  And to that extent, this year’s Rhodes Must Fall campaign was a colossal failure. It could have focused on the system of structural inequality and poverty that Rhodes’ predatory capitalism promoted and that continues to plague South Africa today. Instead, it highlighted transformation, especially in higher education, employing a term that lacks any meaningful definition or rigour. There is in this a certain symmetry that Rhodes might perhaps have appreciated: the use of a vacuous term that often disguises personal ambition, entitlement and grasping acquisitiveness.

First published as ‘Colonial memorials and liberation’ Bulletin of the National Library of South Africa 69(2) December 2015: 245–247.

[1] Paul Maylam, The Cult of Rhodes: Remembering an Imperialist in South Africa (Cape Town: David Philip, 2005):  138, 47.

[2] Ibid:  145.

[3] Ibid:  159.

[4] Ibid:  114.

[5] Ibid:  117, 159.

[6] Ibid:  70.