How to improve yourself and your society

 <img src="Improve Rhodes.jpg" alt="Improve Rhodes" width="283" height="300">

How to improve yourself … and your society

Rhodes must go – but into a discussion not a pile of rubble 

The current “Rhodes must go” debacle has been characterised by ill-informed and absurdly sweeping statements. I was in company where I overheard arguments ranging from A: “He was an abuser of women. He beat them” to B: “If it were not for him the Zimbabweans would not be so well educated.”

         Three not-so-easy rules: How to Improve yourself 


Allow me for a moment to refer to our beloved Madiba’s methodology: “Be the change you want to see” and “get to know your enemy.” While he was on Robben Island his comrades expected him to hate Afrikaans, the language of his oppressors. Instead he learnt Afrikaans, and spoke out against the blanket judgement that increases the divide. He understood deeply that language is tied up with identity and that Afrikaner anger was fed by the disenfranchisement of their culture by British colonialism. In the same way the Sharpeville disaster was sparked by language issues.

Rhodes’ 1894 Glen Grey Act, the forerunner of Apartheid, disenfranchised Afrikaners as much as it did Black and /Xham people. Along with Milner he engineered the Anglo Boer War to steal the gold of South Africa and with the help of their henchman Kitchener, destroyed the livelihood and nearly pulled off the genocide of the Afrikaner nation.

Rhodes imposed hut and labour taxes on blacks to force them into the cash economy, forcing 11,000 black miners into inhumane, dog-patrolled compounds with legal flogging of “disobedient” black labourers through the notorious “strop bill” that facilitated the continued supply of labour to his mines, and impoverished the black population, hence the famous insult by Mark Twain: “I admire Rhodes, I frankly confess it; and when his time comes I shall buy a piece of the rope for a keepsake”. While premier of the Cape colony Rhodes introduced social segregation for non-whites in schools, hospitals, theatres, prisons and public transport and forced blacks to carry passes. It is time that people realise that.

He dispossessed black people in Zimbabwe and Zambia through armed conquest, stealing 3.5 million square miles of black ancestral lands in one of the most ruthless “land-grabs” in modern history. By 1890 Mashonaland had been seized, while farming claims had been staked out in Matabeleland by 1896. Rhodes’ British South Africa Company gave itself the right to half of the loot, the rest being shared out among the odd assortment of settlers, freebooters and adventurers. The huge herds of Ndebele cattle were divided between these armed thugs and the British South Africa Company. Rhodes’ mercenaries stripped and stole the land of the Shona. He cleverly used imperial resources to line his own pockets, missionaries (among them the Moffats) to do his dirty work, men (he was homosexual) that he favoured with position, attention and material gain to manipulate documents, and orated endlessly on the subject of British superiority in order to cover up his own motives:

Addressing the House of Assembly in 1887, in Cape Town, he said:
“I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. Just fancy those parts that are at present inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings ( Afrikaners, Black and Khoi-khoi Africans) what an alteration there would be if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence; look again at the extra employment a new country added to our dominions gives. (He means employment of British citizens) I contend that every acre added to our territory means in the future birth to some more of the English race who otherwise would not be brought into existence ……’

Olive Schreiner wrote a devastating critique of his ruthless imperial methods in her 1897 novel, Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland, which attacked British imperialism and racism in South Africa, championed the causes of the Boers and Black people and published a photograph of the hanging of the Ndebele leaders who had been tricked. She was called a liar and ostracised. When the Anglo Boer War broke out in 1899, the English burned her house and her manuscripts because of her public support of the Afrikaner cause.

The Matabele are descendants of a faction among the Zulu who fled north during the reign of Shaka, following the mfecane (crushing) or difaqane (scattering), one of the most horrific chapters in the history of South Africa. Mzilikazi led his followers away from Zulu territory in the late 1830s; they settled in western Zimbabwe but claimed sovereignty of a much wider area. Let us not romanticise black history prior to colonialism. The mfecane tragedy was caused by a combination of factors: long term drought meant that people moved in search of food and fought over meagre supplies, and huge changes in the Nguni groups’ social systems resulted in political and military changes that ultimately resulted in the development of the great Zulu nation. By 1825 one and a half million people were wandering across southern Africa. Shaka built a powerful empire with a vast army in less than two decades, and refugee groups (resulting from his drive to power) escaped, invading present day Botswana. The Ndebele, fleeing ahead of Shaka’s impi, settled in present day Zimbabwe, along the way absorbing others but also destroying many, among them the Pedi Empire of King Thulane. The Makololo, Sotho-Tswana speakers, pushed north, forcing the Xhosa off their lands; the Xhosa expanded into Khoi-khoi lands, and they in turn retreated into the desert. Add into this diaspora the Afrikaners’ Great Trek. Since the Afrikaner nation as a nation did not remotely yet exist, the disparate members of a Dutch speaking (but not necessarily from Dutch extraction) tribe born on African soil from Scottish, Portuguese and German sailors, Malay slaves, French Protestants fleeing religious persecution, and /Xham nomads fled the injustices of British rule. By the time of Shaka’s assassination by his half brother Dingane in 1828, no group of people in southern Africa were living in their original lands. Cannibalism had been rife over vast areas.

Rhodes’ friend Jameson is suspected of having poisoned King Lobengula of the Ndebele and Rhodes made Lobengula’s son his gardener in Cape Town. His famous party trick when receiving guests was to ask this gardener in which year he (Rhodes) had murdered his father. By no stretch of the imagination can Rhodes be called a mere product of his Imperial time: He was of himself a wicked and greedy megalomaniac. But for heaven’s sake, let us examine real history!


Tragedy on a vast scale struck southern Africa in the early 1800’s. The Mandela noted that in spite of the fact that one of the most notorious genocide attempts in modern history was perpetrated in German, nobody has suggested that German should be wiped off the face of the earth. He knew that destruction engenders destruction and prevents the essential component of a free society: Open discussion.   

OF COURSE, as Afrikaner I have some glee in the downfall of the evil visionary Rhodes. The forces that shaped our society go back much further than 1948 and ceasing from the neat and over-generalised blaming of Apartheid as the source of all evil, is much overdue.  But surely there are more creative ways of protest than to fling excrement at his statue. The mindless actions surrounding the very necessary narrative would cause Rhodes to rub his hands in complacent enjoyment as it seems to support his claims. As he infamously put it: “I prefer land to niggers . . . the natives are like children. They are just emerging from barbarism [and] one should kill as many niggers as possible.”

However, should we not rather put a cage around his statue, and add some snarling dogs? Turn it into installation art and TALK about it? It is easy to break down things; it is much harder to build things, including ourselves. When we destroy something we destroy a part of ourselves. When we selectively remove parts of our history, we can never honestly look at who we have become.


The Round Table Movement was used to set up what is today known as the Rhodes Trust and Rhodes Scholarship. Until the late 1970s it excluded women. To give these institutions legitimacy in Black eyes, in 2002, the name of Nelson Mandela was added to Rhodes’ scholarship and foundation, including naming a building in the Cape Town city centre after him and Mandela. I, for one (and it seemed until recently that I was the only one) found that pairing hugely offensive. The insult to Mandela whose selflessness remains a lesson to us all, went unremarked by most, and my objections were of course suspect because as an Afrikaner I had forfeited the right to any opinion that does not reinforce Afrikaner guilt.  However, isn’t it wonderful that this evil genius, Rhodes, died young, and that now his considerable fortune can be put to good use? Let his estate fund students and provide bursaries and libraries and universities. It’s the least he can do to make very modest amends.

Rhodes’ Trust and Foundation were originally meant to recruit American and Commonwealth Anglophiles for imperialist projects in Africa. The Round Table Movement spawned multinational such as Rio Tinto Zinc, Anglo-American, Lonrho and, of course, DeBeers. In May 1909, a mining conglomerate was formed in London and named the ‘London and Rhodesian Mining and Land Company Limited’ or Lonrho. (‘’Rhodesian”- which is from ‘Rhodes’). In 1999, Lonrho changed its name to Lonmin, the same company which in August 2012 connived with some within the leadership of our country to have 34 workers killed. Isn’t it time we checked out exactly who the shareholders are?

ONE CAN ONLY IMPROVE SOCIETY BY IMPROVING ONESELF: Be informed, build up rather than take down, and discern what is ‘baby’ and what is ‘bathwater’. Be rigorous with yourself and hold yourself to the same standards that you hold others.  Racism and greed are not confined to any one ethnic group. Society will improve itself if we improve ourselves.

Author: Suenel Bruwer Holloway is a playwright, poet, speech writer, translator and editor as well as guest writer. She specializes in satirical social commentary, the arts, education, book reviews and three course picnics. She comes from a long line of hat wearers.

Suenel is available for guest posts and can be contacted at the e-mail address provided.