The Fall of Cecil Rhodes and the Rise of Black Power in Africa

‘…anti-blackness more accurately captures the dehumanization and constant physical danger that black people face. The “anti” in “anti-blackness” is denial of black people’s right to life.’

– Michael Jeffries.

‘How we understand suffering and whether we locate its essence in economic exploitation or in anti-Blackness has a direct impact on how we imagine freedom; and on how we foment revolution’

– Frank B. Wilderson, III.

‘In South Africa, the passport of whiteness grants the holder rights to resources, privileges of learned ignorance to sustained racial injustice, acceptance as informal authority, as well as access to the benefits of a racially determined economic, political and social system. The system of racial injustice includes both the interpersonal racism but of even greater scrutiny is the system of exclusion that operationalizes the passport of white privilege’.

-Warren Phaahla

This essay seeks to examine the meaning of Cecil John Rhodes, 113 years after his death by looking at the following:

* His historical location within Europe’s global anti-Black white supremacist project;

* His family background and how he acquired ‘his’ fortune;

* The impact of the institutions he built, and the Glen Grey Act, on the status of Black people in South Afrika;

* His broad meaning to Black people, in historical and contemporary terms; and

* Situate the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ project within Black people’s historical quest for land repossession.


In a document called the Confession of Faith, Cecil John Rhodes says:

‘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 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. 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……’

He goes on to say:

‘Why should we not form a secret society with but one object: the furtherance of the British Empire and the bringing of the whole uncivilized world under British rule, for the recovery of the United States, and for the making of the Anglo-Saxon race but one Empire?…Afrika is still lying ready for us; it is our duty to take it. It is our duty to seize every opportunity of acquiring more territory and we should keep this one idea steadily before our eyes: that more territory simply means more of the Anglo-Saxon race, more of the best, the most human, most honorable race the world possesses…’

To appreciate and fully grasp the context of Rhodes’s thoughts, we must situate them within the broader context of Europe’s historically-evolved project of white supremacy. Like the Arabs, the Europeans had long identified Afrika’s natural resources and the bodies of Afrikans as crucial for their imperialist projects.

By the time the Trans-Atlantic slave trade started, almost 80 years before Columbus sailed to the Americas, around 1500, Portugal had extracted 700 tons of Afrikan gold, shipping it to Portugal and had kidnapped more than 80,000 of our ancestors into slavery. Afrikan men, women and children in chains were stacked on top of each other – on pallets in the holds of ships with the hideous stench of open pits of human waste.

One of the things that are rarely highlighted is that, as these ships sailed to the various slave plantations of the western world, hundreds of thousands of our ancestors died of disease or starvation, or were murdered for attempted resistance and thrown overboard. The ecology of the Atlantic Ocean was changed by the slave trade.

Schools of sharks would follow the slave ships to feed on the bodies of our ancestors who died and were murdered on board and thrown overboard. The trade in the bodies of Afrikans was the key ingredient in the triangular trade – bringing captives from Afrika as forced labour to the plantations of the Americas and transporting resources such as cotton, sugar, tobacco and rum to North America and to England.

Along with this assault on Afrika was the genocide against the indigenous people and the theft of their land and resources. This slaughter, genocide, rape and plunder of Afrika’s people brought unprecedented amounts of stolen wealth into Europe. This contributed immensely to the so-called industrial revolution and transformed Europe from feudalism to capitalism – not the ingenuity and innovation of Europeans as we are often told.

Therefore, a large portion of the economic wealth of today’s so-called First World European nations is a direct result of the bloody trade in the bodies of Afrikans or what is sometimes referred to as the ‘slave economy’. In fact, even the highly revered ‘founding fathers’ of the United States of America were brutal slave-masters, who orchestrated genocidal acts against the indigenous people of the U S. George Washington was known for his brutality and ‘owned’ more than 300 slaves, giving them meagre daily rations of a few ounces of grain and fish by-products.


Fast forward to the 21st century. The month of March this year marks 113 years since the death of Rhodes. Rhodes’s posthumous reputation is just as complex and contentious as that of his life. This complexity and contention is evident in the debate that has been ignited by the rebellion of Black students at the Universities of Cape Town (UCT) and Rhodes against the perpetuation of Rhodes’s white supremacist legacy.

This rebellion by Black students has naturally elicited a number of reactions. Some of the reactions have been in the form of questions such as: are these students just a bunch of ignorant attention-seekers, who are hell-bent on spoiling the serene rainbow-nation facade of our country? Or are they a highly intelligent collective, who have a deep understanding of the ontology of Black people in the world as we know it? The other question that arose was: why should Black people in South Afrika (21 years into what others regard as democracy) be bothered by the statue of a white man from Europe, who died over hundred years ago?

I wish to add to these questions and ask: What would the consequences be for Black people if they were to choose to remain ignorant of the continued presence of the symbols of white supremacy in South Afrika?

Whatever our responses to the aforementioned and related questions, the presence of white supremacist symbols in our public and private spaces has a much more profound impact on our lives as Blacks than we can ever imagine – and this is also reflected in the contradictory responses that Blacks have offered to the protests against the symbolism of Rhodes.


Today, the name Cecil John Rhodes is more associated with academic and leadership excellence, scholarships and philanthropy. But is this really who Rhodes was? Born in 1853 in Bishop’s Stratford, England, Rhodes was an asthmatic teenager who during college vacations was regularly sent to ‘his’ brother’s cotton plantation in the Natal because the climate there was favourable for his condition.

Later, he and his brother became involved in the rush to exploit South Afrika’s diamond and gold deposits. Rhodes helped found the notorious DeBeers diamond cartel and at age 18, took over the diamond mines in the area that he and his imperialist cabal named Kimberley. By his early 20s he was a millionaire, but this didn’t stop him from furthering his imperialist project on our continent. By his 30s, he was a billionaire, and by 1891, he had amalgamated the De Beers mines under his control, giving him dominion over 90 per cent of the world’s diamond output.

He had also secured two other important positions. One was that of Prime Minister of the British Cape Colony. Addressing the House of Assembly in 1887, in Cape Town, he said:

‘…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’.

He also said: ‘I prefer land to niggers.’

His other position was that of President of the British South Africa Company (BSAC) – an organisation formed in 1889, along the same lines as the old slave–trading-land-stealing East India companies. In line with his ‘Cape to Cairo’ imperial vision, the BSAC orchestrated bloody land-grabs campaigns in Nyasaland (now Malawi), Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Rhodes’s imperialist conquests in Southern Afrika are the direct cause of the anti-colonial land struggles waged by Blacks in the aforementioned countries.

Rhodes was both evil and visionary. He systematically used his stolen fortune to set up and inspire a number of white supremacist institutions, many of which are still in operation today. One such institution was the Round Table Movement. This Movement was used to set up what is today known as the Rhodes Trust and Rhodes Scholarship. To give these institutions legitimacy in Black eyes, in 2002, the name of Nelson Mandela was added to Rhodes’s scholarship and foundation, including naming a building in the Cape Town city centre after him and Mandela.

Rhodes’s Trust and Foundation were originally meant to recruit American and Commonwealth Anglophiles for imperialist projects in Afrika. The Round Table Movement later also spawned raw materials multinational giants such as Rio Tinto Zinc, Anglo-American, Lonrho and, of course, DeBeers. In this network, Lonrho is perhaps the most interesting of all these companies.

In May 1909, a mining conglomerate was formed in London and named the ‘London and Rhodesian Mining and Land Company Limited’ or Lonrho in short. Note the specific mention of ‘Land’ and the fact that the name of this company contains the words ‘Rhodesian’- which is a derivative from ‘Rhodes’. Then in 1999, Lonrho changed its name to Lonmin. The latter as we know is the same company which in August 2012 connived with some within the leadership of the ANC to have over 34 Black workers killed-in defence of foreign-white monopoly capital.

Rhodes’s network of stolen wealth also helped set-up universities such as Rhodes, Witwatersrand, Pretoria and Cape Town. Rhodes University came into existence through a ‘donation’ from the Rhodes Trust, and UCT was built on land ‘donated’ by Rhodes. In fact, according to Rhodes’s architect, Herbert Baker, in reference to the building of UCT, Rhodes ‘proposed to build the university mainly from the profits – about £10 000 a year – of the Kaffir Compound System of De Beers Mines’ and joked that, ‘He meant to build the University out of the Kaffir’s stomach’.

Many of South Afrika’s ‘leading’ white universities have their genesis in the 1896 South African School of Mines in Kimberley, which under the direction of colonialists like Rhodes, Barnato, Southey, Lord Kimberley and others presided over Black genocide in South Afrika’s diamond- and gold-rich areas.

It should therefore not be surprising if the powerful interests that sustain universities like UCT, Wits, Rhodes, Pretoria, Stellenbosch or Free State – financially – resist the attempts to have white supremacist symbols like Rhodes removed from our public spaces. They are fully aware that these universities were built using stolen wealth and the blood of Black people, and their reason for existence was to bolster white supremacy in South Afrika. They also know that if Rhodes falls the other white supremacists (that are connected to other white universities) are also likely to fall.


Rhodes paved the way for global capitalism and imperial expansion in Afrika in the 20th century. Today Rhodes is no more, but some of the imperial institutions and networks that he created persist, and the new imperialist institutions, which were created after his death, continue with his agenda of exploiting Afrika and her people.

One such institution is De Beers, which got its name from Diederik Arnoldus and Johannes Nicolaas de Beer. When Rhodes died, the De Beers diamond cartel was taken over by the Oppenheimer family. De Beers is a cartel which has a monopoly that controls every aspect of the diamond economy. De Beers controls not only mining but cutting, polishing, setting into jewellery, pricing and selling world-wide.

De Beers has spent millions of dollars on public relations campaigns that are aimed at giving the diamond trade this innocent and romantic image. This is all meant to conceal the dirty and bloody behind-the-scenes involvement of multi-nationals like De Beers in genocide, slavery, child labour and death, particularly in Afrika’s mineral-rich areas.

Some of the large gem-quality diamonds come from Sierra Leone, along with Angola, Namibia and Congo. De Beers was highly involved in the atrocities that took place in Sierra Leone and West Afrika in the 1990s. The concept of blood or conflict diamonds came about in reference to the brutal imperialist backed wars in Sierra Leone and West Afrika in the 1990s. As a survival strategy, the De Beers diamond cartel set up the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme that would supposedly determine if a diamond is ‘blood’ or ‘clean’ – essentially policing themselves.

The truth is that De Beers is the key figure behind the issue of blood diamonds. Under the ‘legitimate’ diamond mines of Sierra Leone – meaning that, in the De Beers and imperialist controlled mines – Afrikan miners are forced to work for almost nothing. Only a few workers actually get a salary from 30 cents to $2 a day. Yet according to Forbes, Nicky Oppenheimer, the former Chairman of DeBeers and son of Harry Oppenheimer, is Afrika’s third richest man, with a net worth of $6.6 billion.

Like certain parts of Afrika, Sierra Leone has an abundance of natural wealth, yet today it is one of the most impoverished countries in the world. Most of the people live on less than a dollar a day. It has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world and the life expectancy for men is 38 years. Although the resources are on their land, the people of Sierra Leone are deeply impoverished. As in the rest of Afrika, the profits and benefits of Sierra Leone’s natural wealth go to Europe and North America.

Also, when the Revolutionary United Front of Foday Sankoh emerged in the 1990s, the people of Sierra Leone first thought they were fighting in their interests. They were horribly mistaken. The RUF was just another western-sponsored armed group that was fighting for the crumbs of the colonial plunder. They launched a brutal war against their own people – with about 50,000 murdered and tens of thousands of mutilations. It is believed that De Beers and Israel were the biggest benefactors of this proxy imperialist war.

In fact, diamonds have long played a role in entrenching neo-colonialism, through anti-Black violence in Afrika. De Beers and western foreign intelligence agencies used quislings like Jonas Savimbi and Mobutu Seseko to carry out a bloody project of white supremacy and capitalism in Afrika. With the connivance of US Presidents Kennedy and Eisenhower, De Beers collaborated with the CIA to create a conducive climate for the assassination of Patrice Lumumba.


The legacy of Rhodes is not just palpable in the structure and function of South Afrikan and Afrikan economies but also in the persistence of Black landlessness. The position of the South Afrikan government that the critical moment in legislated Black land dispossession was 1913 is horribly misleading. The Native Land Act of 1913 was merely a perpetuation of the often ignored Glen Grey Act of 1894.

The Glen Grey Act, which was authored by Rhodes and his secretary, William Milton, was inspired by two commissions previously set up by the colonial government – the Cape Commission on Native Laws (1883) and the Glen Grey Commission (1893). It primarily sought to address three issues: land, labour and the franchise.

In practice, it provided for the division of all unalienated land in the district into locations. The locations were surveyed and divided into portions of about four morgens for each existing occupier and other claimants who were approved by the governor. Land could not be mortgaged and the remaining land was to serve as commonage. Alienation and transfer of land was to be approved by the governor.

There was to be no subletting or subdivision of the land and the principle of ‘one-man-one plot’ was to be applied. This Act was also influenced by the views of various colonial administrators in the Transkeian Territories and the Afrikaner Bond – all of which formed the basis for the Glen Grey Act. In essence, Rhodes’s view was that ‘natives’ must be treated differently from the Europeans. He claimed his intention, through this Act, was to: ‘give natives interest in the land, allow the superior minds among them to attend to their local wants, remove the canteens, and give them a stimulus in labour.’

He referred to the Glen Grey Act as the ‘Bill of Africa’ because he envisaged that it would be extended to cover not just the Transkeian territories and any district in the Cape Colony occupied by what he called an ‘aboriginal native’, but he ambitiously saw the Act being extended to other British colonies outside South Afrika.

The Glen Grey Act therefore systematically limited the number of Afrikan people who could live on and own their own land. It also pushed those who were deemed unqualified to acquire land to leave the area and look for work in farms or other forms of employment outside the Glen Grey District. This Act also implemented provisions to limit the number of Afrikans who qualified for the franchise.

However, the Glen Grey Act also saw gallant resistance from various freedom fighters from the Khoikhoi, San, amaXhosa and amaZulu. This resistance was inspired by preceding anti-colonial wars that were waged by the indigenous people against the Dutch in the so-called Cape. There is also evidence that there were instances of joint resistance from the various indigenous communities. One such joint campaign was the one waged by the Khoi and amaXhosa, under Autshumato and Makana.

It is also critical to note that, the narrative of our liberation struggle is terribly skewed. It is spectacularly biased towards a certain section of the liberation movement (the ANC), the twentieth century and places less emphasis on the resistance efforts of the Khoi and San. As a matter of fact, the Khoi and San were not just the first to be dispossessed by the Europeans, but they were also the first to wage armed resistance against European colonialists.

It is this resistance that gave birth to, amongst others, the Khoi-Dutch Wars of 1659-60 and 1673-77 and the Khoi Rebellion of 1799-1803. It is these resistance wars that produced the legendary Khoi Freedom Fighters such as the Strandloopers under the great Autshumato, the Goringhaiqua under Gogosa and Doman and later, David Stuurman.


Even though it was passed over a hundred years ago, the Glen Grey Act of 1894 continues to have a profound and lasting impact on the position of Blacks in South Afrikan society. First, it laid the broad legislative basis for Black dispossession, physical dislocation and co-operation between the British and Dutch settlers, which would later make the formation of the white supremacist Union of South Africa, in May 1910, less difficult.

Second, by the time the white supremacist Union regime passed the Native Land Act of 1913, a huge section of Black land was already in white hands. The Glen Grey Act had essentially laid the basis for the various forms of legislated Black dispossession in the 20th century.

Third, the Native Land Act of 1913 was then used by successive white supremacist regimes (British and Dutch) to pass complementary anti-Black laws such as the Urban Areas Act of (1923), Natives and Land Trust Act of (1936) and the Group Areas Act of (1950) – all which strengthened land theft by whites, Black land-dispossession and the enslavement of Blacks as conceived by, amongst others, Jan Van Reebieck and Cecil John Rhodes.

Fourth, the Glen Grey Act drew heavily from the thinking of the British Secretary for Native Affairs, Theophilus Shepstone, whose recommendations for the establishment of ‘native reserves’ became the model for what is today known as townships.

Fifth, the aforementioned means that the post-1913 narrative that is being promoted by Section 25 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa (1996) and Section 1 of the Restitution of Land Rights Act (1994) is not a just a gross falsification of the narrative of Black dispossession but it also proves that post-1994 land reform legislation was mainly designed to appease white land ‘owners’.

Furthermore, the complementary nature of the Glen Grey Act of 1894 and Native Land Act of 1913 shows how misleading it is to reduce the Black liberation project in South Afrika to an anti-apartheid project.

Sixth, and perhaps most critically, more than a hundred years after his death, the racist and anti-Black policies of Rhodes have ensured that, even after Black South Afrikans have formally proclaimed freedom, they are essentially a voting but landless and economically powerless majority.


Rhodes was essentially a ruthless-blood-thirsty-Black-hating white supremacist, who presided over a far-reaching project of genocide against Blacks on the Afrikan continent. His life epitomises the observation made by Omali Yeshitela, that: ‘…white people sit on the pedestal of the enslavement of African people and colonized and oppressed peoples around the world.’

In the name of the British Empire, Rhodes was responsible for the mass murder, rape and dispossession of millions of Black people for the benefit of whites in South Afrika and Europe. Even though it is now more than a hundred years after his deathit is critical that we interrogate the meaning of Rhodes (and others like him) to Black existence. This is necessary because, as stated earlier, the consequences of Rhodes’s white supremacist project continue to define the meaning of what it means to be Black, both in South Afrika and other parts of the Afrikan continent.

Furthermore, the calls for Blacks to engage in self-induced amnesia, that emanate from the red-wine-and-olives interactions, of Black-white liberal circles only serve to bolster the project of white supremacy, anti-Blackness, and neo-liberalism in South Afrika today.

The liberal establishment wants Blacks to believe that the statue of Rhodes is just a harmless object, whose presence shouldn’t trouble Blacks. It is not for whites to decide whether or not the statue of Rhodes poses any harm to Blacks. This is exclusively a Black matter. It is Black people alone who must decide how they must respond to the violence that emanates from the white world. On this matter therefore, whites – and in particular white liberals – must just shut up!

Like Steve Biko put it:

‘There is nothing the matter with blacks. The problem is WHITE RACISM and it rests squarely on the laps of the white society. The sooner the liberals realise this the better for us blacks. Their presence amongst us is irksome and of nuisance value. It removes the focus of attention from essentials and shifts it to ill-defined philosophical concepts that are both irrelevant to the black man and merely a red herring across the track. White liberals must leave blacks to take care of their own business while they concern themselves with the real evil in our society – white racism.’

Rhodes’s statue is more than just a symbol of white supremacy. It serves as a daily reminder of how Blacks were continuously humiliated by foreigners in the land of their forebears. For the white world therefore, Rhodes’s statue is a symbol of immense pride and an integral part of the white identity, and this is why whites never saw the need to protest against this statue or similar ones in the first place.

By showering Rhodes’s statue with human excrement ( as alleged) the brave Black warriors at UCT have hit a raw nerve in the ‘sensitive’, ‘innocent’ and ‘pure’ white body. The Black world must therefore commend the bravery of the Black warriors at UCT and Rhodes University.

Theirs is a generational act of Black Consciousness which happens at a time when the older section of the Black political leadership has developed a treacherously cozy relationship with white capital. This act therefore resonates with other post-1994 grass-roots Black rebellions that seek a radical break with the hegemonic-anti-black-neo-liberal discourse in our country.

Like Andries Tatane, Mgcineni Noki, Ayanda Mabulu and Dookom, the Rhodes Must Fall project is discomforting because it seeks to disrupt the deceptive calm that was brought about by the 1994 settlement. At the phenomenological level, it seeks to make Blacks realise the vulgarity of the paradox wherein Blacks, as an indigenous majority, continuously complain about being ill-treated by what is essentially a foreign settler-minority. It therefore brings to the fore the problematic of Blacks as ontological absentees.

The deeper implications of the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ project is that it re-opens the conveniently ignored issue of the white and colonial name and character of South Afrika. At a more fundamental level, this project inadvertently re-opens the discourse on a question that some within the older section of the Black political leadership are terribly afraid to ask openly, which is: Has April 27, 1994 resolved the National and Land Questions? The ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ project is essentially an urgent call for Black people to rise up and reclaim their land. Yes! Rhodes must fall, but so must all the others (white and Black).

Veli Mbele is a South African writer and social commentator.


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This article originally appeared in Pambazuka News.