As we celebrate Nelson Mandela’s 93rd birthday, it is interesting to contrast his legacy with the very different one of Cecil Rhodes whose 158th birthday would have been this month.
The controversial co-joining of both historical figures under the Mandela Rhodes Foundation in 2002 justifies this approach.
While Rhodes was the greateast imperialist of the nineteenth century, Mandela was the greatest liberation hero of the twentieth.
Rhodes was an expansionist empire-builder (with Zambia and Zimbabwe – formerly Northern and Southern Rhodesia – once named after him). Mandela was a nation-builder who did the most to unite a South Africa divided for decades by colonialism and apartheid and seemingly on the brink of a racial war.
While Rhodes pursued a mission civilisatrice, Mandela embodied a quasi-religious “prophetic” leadership as a black Moses who freed his people from the bondage of apartheid Pharaohs by 1994.
Both had strong Christian roots: while Rhodes’s father was vicar of the English town of Bishop’s Stortford, Mandela attended two elite Methodist schools (Clarkebury and Healdtown), and at the University of Fort Hare joined the Student Christian Association, assisting in providing Sunday school classes.
Mandela and Rhodes are among the best-known figures in African history; both have had countless books, documentaries, and monuments devoted to them, and streets and universities named after them. Rhodes was born in England and moved to South Africa at 17; both trained as lawyers, pursuing their degrees part-time; both were awarded honorary doctorates by the universities at which they studied – Witwatersrand (Mandela) and Oxford (Rhodes).
Both were pan-Africanists, with Rhodes seeking to use military and economic muscle to unite the continent from the Cape to Cairo under the Union Jack, while Mandela sought peaceful means of conflict resolution and regional co-operation.
Both spent much of their life in Cape Town, with Mandela mostly in jail on Robben Island for a third of his life, while Rhodes lived in the opulence of Groote Schuur, his grand estate at the foot of Table Mountain, which he bequeathed to the state and which became the South African head of state’s official residence in Cape Town (until Mandela declined to live there after 1994).
Few black scholars have published major works on either figure. The contrasts between them are, however, enormous. Mandela was a saint, and Rhodes a sinner.
While Mandela struggled as a lawyer and spent 27 years in jail protesting at the injustices of apartheid, Rhodes lived a wealthy life aggressively promoting the interests of the British Empire through often harsh and unjust means.
While Rhodes visited unimaginable cruelty upon black populations in South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, Mandela embodied national reconciliation.
While Rhodes is now widely despised across Africa as an aggressive racist, Mandela remains one of the greatest moral figures of the current age, as evidenced by his award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
While Rhodes died at the age of 48 and drank excessively, the teetotal Mandela has lived a long life. While Mandela married three times and produced six children (three of them later died), Rhodes never married, and there is scarcely any record of relationships with women.
Rhodes dispossessed black people of ancestral lands in what are now Zimbabwe and Zambia by aggressive and duplicitous means, stealing 3.5 million square miles (9 million km2) of black real estate in one of the most ignominious land grabs in modern history. He was an often unscrupulous businessman and crude racist.
Rhodes infamously said: “I prefer land to niggers… the natives are like children. They are just emerging from barbarism… one should kill as many niggers as possible.”
Rhodes headed De Beers and used his British South Africa Company to dispossess black people of their ancestral lands.
The Bishop’s Stortford Museum provides an interesting dimension to his legacy. African music plays amid shields and other weapons. Pictures of Rhodes litter the room: as a child in Bishop’s Stortford; as prime minister of the Cape colony.
Of greater interest is the Rhodes art complex, which offers theatre and “Rhodes Rocks” music on Fridays. Many in the town clearly think about Rhodes more in terms of entertainment than imperialism.
The commercialisation and packaging of this ruthless businessman in his English home town is perhaps the ultimate irony in the quest for immortality of a megalomaniac plunderer-politician.
In contrast, Mandela embodied his people’s aspirations for a democratic future, becoming the leading apostle of reconciliation.
Critics have noted that Mandela may have ended up doing more long-term damage as president by papering over racial differences and not forcing white South Africans to show more contrition to their largely black victims of apartheid.
They have also observed that many of South Africa’s five million whites continue to enjoy their privileged lifestyles, while the national high priest, Madiba, appears to have absolved them of their sins without a proper confession and penance.
Mandela’s legacy in liberating his country is secure, but the success of his efforts at national reconciliation will only endure if rapid progress can be made to narrow the country’s grotesque socio-economic inequalities.
Madiba, however, remains a prophet who is honoured in his own land. History will doubtless be much kinder to Mandela’s nation-building than to Rhodes’s empire-building.
l Dr Adekeye Adebajo is Executive Director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town, and author of The Curse of Berlin: Africa After the Cold War.