A BAD MAN IN AFRICA ; the Evil That Men Do Lives after Them - and Rarely More Miserably Than in the Case of Cecil Rhodes, Who Died 100 Years Ago This Month. Matthew Sweet Considers the Fluctuating Reputation of a National Hero Who Became a National Embarrassment

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North of the Zambezi, they have long known about the suppression of free speech, about the bloody redistribution of land along racial lines, about politicians happy to employ armed - and sometimes uniformed - mobs to kill their opponents. They are practices imported to this region, along with the railways, by the British.

Unlike the African press, the Western media rarely invoke the name of Cecil John Rhodes: nearly a century after his death - on 26 March 1902 - his name is more associated with Oxford Scholarships than with murder. It's easier to focus on the region's more recent, less Anglo white supremacists: Ian Smith, for instance, who - despite his Scottish background - seems cut from the same stuff as those Afrikaner politicians who nurtured and maintained apartheid farther south.

But it was Rhodes who originated the racist "land grabs" to which Zimbabwe's current miseries can ultimately be traced. It was Rhodes, too, who in 1887 told the House of Assembly in Cape Town that "the native is to be treated as a child and denied the franchise. We must adopt a system of despotism in our relations with the barbarians of South Africa". In less oratorical moments, he put it even more bluntly: "I prefer land to niggers."

For much of the century since his death, Rhodes has been revered as a national hero. Today, however, he is closer to a national embarrassment, about whom the less said the better. Yet there are plenty of memorials to him to be found. In Bishop's Stortford, his Hertfordshire birthplace, St Michael's Church displays a plaque. The town has a Rhodes arts centre, a Rhodes junior theatre group, and a small Rhodes Museum - currently closed - which houses a collection of African art objects. In Oxford, his statue adorns Oriel College, while Rhodes House, in which the Rhodes Trust is based, is packed with memorabilia. Even Kensington Gardens boasts a statue - of a naked man on horseback - based on the central feature of his memorial in Cape Town.

But his presence is more strongly felt - and resented - in the territories that once bore his name. Delegates at the Pan Africanist Congress in January argued that "the problems which were being blamed on [President Robert] Mugabe were created by British colonialism, whose agent Cecil Rhodes used armed force to acquire land for settlers". He is the reason why, during the campaign for the presidential election in Zimbabwe, Mugabe's Zanu-PF described its enemies - white or black - as "colonialists"; why, when Zimbabwe gained full independence in 1980, Rhodes's name was wiped from the world's maps.

The prosecution case is strong. Rhodes connived his way to wealth in a lawless frontier culture, then used that fortune to fund a private invasion of East Africa. He bought newspapers in order to shape and control public opinion. He brokered secret deals, issued bribes and used gangs of mercenaries to butcher his opponents, seizing close to a million square miles of territory from its inhabitants. Although he did this in the name of the British Empire, he was regarded with some suspicion in his home country, and when it suited him to work against Britain's imperial interests - by slipping pounds 10,000 to Parnell's Irish nationalists, for example - he did so without scruple.

Rhodes was born in the summer of 1853, the fifth son of a parson who prided himself on never having preached a sermon longer than 10 minutes. A sickly, asthmatic teenager, he was sent to the improving climate of his brother's cotton plantation in Natal. The pair soon became involved in the rush to exploit South Africa's diamond and gold deposits - and unlike many prospectors and speculators who wandered, dazed and luckless, around the continent, their claim proved fruitful.

When Rhodes began his studies at Oriel College, he returned to South Africa each vacation to attend to his mining interests - which, by his mid-thirties, had made him, in today's terms, a billionaire. …