Monday, January 27, 2014

Reading my Youth


I have just finished reading Anthony Thomas’ biography of Cecil John Rhodes, Rhodes: The Race for Africa. A few have heard of the Rhodes scholarships to Oxford University. Fewer today have heard of the man whose estate established those scholarships. But I grew up with his name in my ears and his fame in my heart.

C.J. Rhodes founded the countries of Southern and Northern Rhodesia. I was born in Northern Rhodesia, and grew up in Southern Rhodesia. Today these countries are known as Zambia and Zimbabwe, quite different from what I knew growing up.

I grew up, then, as a White Rhodesian, moulded by the ideas and heritage of Rhodes—son of an English clergyman; briefly a farmer in South Africa; best known for his success in the diamond mines of Kimberley and (to a lesser extent) in the gold mines of Johannesburg. He founded the De Beers Diamond Company. As the Wikipedia entry puts it: “De Beers is a cartel of companies that dominate the diamond, diamond mining, diamond hops, diamond trading and industrial diamond manufacturing sectors.” All going back to Rhodes in 1888.

His representatives pursued actions that led to the annexation (or conquest) of Zimbabwe, displacing the local rulers—Lobengula, the king of the Ndebele people, and many local chiefs who led the Shona people. The wars of 1893 and 1896 in which Ndebele and Shona power was broken were called by the Shona “Chimurenga”. And the Chimurenga did not end in 1896, but were resumed in the 1970s, leading to the end of White rule, as ZANU and ZAPU deposed the party and power of Ian Smith.

Of course, as a White Rhodesian I learned a different story. I (with all my White friends) revered Rhodes. His statue stood in the middle of Bulawayo. He was a colossus! A true hero of the British Empire!

Over 40 years ago I left those ideas behind, but early patterns remain ingrained in one’s gut. Reading Thomas’ dispassionate accounting of Rhodes—seeing the single-minded willingness to crush anyone who stood in his way—clearly Rhodes was no hero. That knowledge hurts, as I must again refuse my own instincts to praise and admire him. Ironically, the modern Zimbabwean most like him in his ruthless quest for power is Zimbabwe’s current president, R.G.M. Rhodes the dictator has been succeeded now by Mugabe the dictator.
There was much to admire in the best of the White Rhodesians. Garfield Todd and his daughter, Judith, are among the best that White Rhodesia produced. But I am on a life-long quest to not be who my first country taught me to be. (Taking Zimbabwe to be the first country in which I made my own conscious choices about the kind of person I want to be.)

A postscript: As I work on a history of the Brethren in Christ Missions, I know that I must also read accounts of Zimbabwe by other Brethren in Christ writers. At least two of them are close friends, but as Black Zimbabweans they tell a story I find hard to hear. I know that I must listen to their voices more carefully than any others; but the task is not easy. I want what I know from my childhood to be good, and much of it is. But truth is more important than sentiment, and continued growth requires more and more truth. All the truth.


KGMom said...

As you can imagine, this post is very interesting to me. I wonder if I absorbed less of the Rhodesian history? Because I am female? No hero worship here. Or because I came back to the U.S. and stayed here? Not sure.
I read a biography of Rhodes some years ago (don't remember whose) and found him to be a not very likable fellow all around.
But he certainly was a complex man, and--as you say--the epitome of a hero at the height of the British Empire.

Climenheise said...

I don't know why you would have absorbed less Rhodesian history. I think that what I took on was mystique rather than history. Certainly in his own lifetime Rhodes was a very likeable man--that was part of what carried him through so many crises. Thomas notes that, like Mandela, Rhodes had the ability to bring about great good in the South Africa of his day, and chose not to. I would add, he chose not to, like Mugabe, who had the same potential for great good in Zimbabwe. Thomas dedicates his book to Mandela, and to the second chance he represented.