Protest Watch

In shadow of Rhodes the Madiba dream takes a dive


As the controversy around the legacy of arch-imperialist Cecil John Rhodes and protests against the retention of his statute at UCT continue, another Madiba dream might bite the dust.

When the Rhodes Trust, best known for its international Rhodes Scholarship, in 2002 entered into a partnership with Mr Nelson Mandela to establish the Mandela Rhodes Foundation (MRF), the late president wrote:

“The bringing together of these two names represents a symbolic moment in the closing of the historic circle; drawing together the legacies of reconciliation and leadership and those of entrepreneurship and education.”

On its website the MRF, which offers Scholarships for postgraduate study to students from the African continent at any recognised South African institution of higher education, declare:

“The overarching mission of The Mandela Rhodes Foundation is to help build exceptional leadership capacity in Africa, by providing excellent educational and leadership development opportunities to individual Africans with leadership potential; as well as by creating over time a network of well-rounded leaders of talent, effectiveness and integrity across African society.”

Mr Mandela also claimed that “Already the Mandela Rhodes Scholarships are changing the lives of young Africans, who will play vital roles in the future of the continent.”

This attempt to reposition, at least to some extent, the Rhodes legacy clearly did not work and for now remains just a “symbolic moment”. The lived reality of the majority of black students and the community at large is that, in the words of Andrew Ihsaan Gasnolar (himself a MRF scholar), “the status quo in many respects has been unwavering”. 

But then, as Gasnolar notes, transformation is a slow and tricky process, and one should not despair for the Mandela dream with the MRF. And there are some lessons from history to draw on.

Meanwhile the Rhodes legacy, of which the Rhodes Scholarship forms part, is assisting in turning his racist world view of the superiority of the white race on its head, as in the case of the MRF.

Afrikaners’ Rhodes experience

The Afrikaner community of South Africa, especially those from the northern parts of the country, may have even more reason than their black counterparts to largely detest the Rhodes legacy. Some of those reasons are actually a shared heritage.

During the Anglo-Boer War, caused to no small extent by Rhodes’s imperial ambitions and mining interests – which richly contributed to his wealth – just shy of 28 000 women and children lost their lives in concentration camps. (According to some reports this amounted to close to 50% of the then Boer child population.) Some 30 000 farms and 40 towns were also destroyed.  

Less well remembered is that the British force also set up separate black concentration camps, besides mobilising at least 15 000 blacks as combatants. Those in the camps mostly came from burned-down white farms. The British authorities  used them for essentially slave labour to, among other things, keep mines going, especially towards the end of the war.

While official calculations put the deaths in those black camps at 14 154, other studies, after examining actual graveyards, estimate it to be at least 20 000.

Short on the heels of the war and the formation of the Union of South Africa followed industrialisation and urbanisation of whites who had lost their farms. During research for a book on the history of Krugersdorp, I came across photographs of white squatter camps on the Witwatersrand.

And then came a period of at times violent labour unrest, followed by the economic collapse of the late 1920s and early 1930s and the resultant ‘poor white problem’.

In another recent article I related how the Afrikaner community organised itself to, with government assistance, uplift itself.

Over time the Afrikaners, by initially pooling resources, mastered the world of finance and the modern economy. It largely made its peace with English-speaking compatriots. By the early 1950s, Dr D.F. Malan, prime minister after the 1948 National Party election victory, included English speakers “who put South Africa first” in his definition of an Afrikaner.

Perspective in Rhodes debate

Those on the white side of the debate, especially Afrikaners, should remember their own history and struggles. It should be cause for empathy with where the black community finds itself at present.

The Rhodes debate is but one symptom of the broader context of where the previously disadvantaged find themselves at present. When judging phenomena like labour unrest and violent protest, we would do well to read up on where white semi-skilled labour found itself in the period between 1907 and 1922, a period that culminated in the death of 200 people during the 1922 Labour Revolt.

On the black side of the debate there are also important lessons to learn from that period in Afrikaner history, including the self-help spirit nurtured by civic leaders. And maybe the definition of an ‘African’ should be revisited to strip it from racial connotations.

Those driving the present revolt against their ‘lived reality’ should contemplate the words of Gushwell F. Brooks when he writes that what he doesn’t get “... is how the fall of a statue will make a difference beyond symbolism”.


The best revenge on the Rhodes legacy is to use its scholarship component to shape future leaders to help destroy Rhodes’s superior versus inferior race doctrine.

This can be done and has already happened.

From Afrikaner ranks there are a number of examples. I will cite just two from the 1980s battle for change in the heart of the National Party that helped prepare the way for the ‘New South Africa’ in 1994:

  • Dr. Piet Koornhof who, as Minister of Cooperation and Development, attempted to reform some apartheid legislation and in his doctoral thesis already pointed out some of the unworkable elements of separate development and later became a member of the ANC, was a Rhodes Scholar; and
  • So was Leon Wessels, another NP cabinet minister, who after the 1994 elections would become co-chairman of the Constituent Assembly, together with present Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.
by Piet Coetzer

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