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Cecil John Rhodes:

The Man and the


Reference: Tim Nuttall "A Century of South African Rhodes Scholarships" in Anthony Kenny (ed) The History of the Rhodes Trust: 1902 - 1999 (Oxford University Press, Oxford 2001)

Cecil John Rhodes was born in England in 1853, the son of a preacher in the Anglican church. As a young man he suffered from health problems, which continued throughout his life, and his family sent him to the warmer climate of South Africa to earn a living. There, he became a phenomenally successful businessman, first in agriculture and then on the newly discovered Kimberley diamond mines, where he made his fortune. The company which he founded, De Beers Consolidated Mines, still exists today as the world's largest diamond-mining operation. President Mandela recently described Rhodes as "the great entrepreneur", highlighting his role in the economic development of Southern Africa.

In addition to business, Rhodes was interested in politics and colonization. He was committed to expanding the British Empire and believed that this would benefit both the British and African peoples alike. His ambitions led him to travel north of the Limpopo, where he obtained large amounts of land and mineral rights, partly by force and partly through deals with local rulers. These lands later became part of the British colonies of Southern and Northern Rhodesia, which were named after him, but which today are the independent states of Zimbabwe and Zambia. Rhodes was also active in the politics of the Cape Colony, where he was Prime Minister for six years until he was forced to resign in 1896 for secretly encouraging support for the Jameson Raid into the Transvaal Republic. When the Anglo-Boer war broke out in 1899, he moved to Kimberley, which was in the front line, and which was besieged by Boer forces for some months. Later, he returned to the Cape, but his health was deteriorating and he died in March 1902 before the end of the war. Rhodes was buried in the Matapos Hills near Bulawayo in Zimbabwe.

In his Will, Rhodes established the scholarship scheme that bears his name, and which combines the vast fortune he amassed as a businessman with the distinctive vision that he developed as a politician and statesman. In Rhodes' conception, the Scholarships would enable students from the colonies and the United States to absorb the ethos and culture of Oxford, a university at the heart of the British Empire, while simultaneously enriching the university by bringing energy and insights from the new world. As for the personal qualities of Rhodes Scholars, Rhodes spelt these out as follows: intellect, athleticism, character and service, and leadership. The exact weight that should be given to each of these factors has, we shall see, been controversial, and has been adjusted over the years, especially in respect of athleticism. Rhodes also took care to stipulate, in clause 24 of his Will, that race should not play a role in the selection of Scholars. At the time, he undoubtedly had in mind the English and Afrikaans communities of South Africa, and not black or Indian people. Not surprisingly, over the years, race has repeatedly proved to be a contentious issue in the selection of South African Scholars.

To understand Rhodes' initial arrangements for the selection of South African Rhodes Scholars, we must recall that, in 1899, South Africa did not exist as it does today. Instead, the term was simply a geographical expression for the colonies of the Cape and Natal, which were under British authority but ruled by settler governments. As for the interior, that consisted of the then independent Boer republics of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. As we have seen, between 1899 and 1902 Britain and the Boer republics were engaged in the Anglo-Boer war, and it was only in the wake of that conflict that the Union of South Africa was eventually formed in 1910.

It was, however, in the political context of the turn of the century that Rhodes allocated the South African Scholarships. The Will spelt these out in order of priority. First, three Scholarships were to be awarded annually for the colony of Rhodesia. Second, Rhodes allocated four Scholarships for particular schools in the Cape: Diocesan College (also known as "Bishops"), St Andrews, the South African College (SACS) and Stellenbosch Boys' High School, later renamed "Paul Roos". Third was a Scholarship for the colony of Natal.

In many ways, Rhodes' arrangements for the South African Scholarships were unique. In no other constituency are Rhodes Scholarships allocated to particular schools. Why Rhodes took this step in the Cape is a matter for speculation, but it possibly reflects the fact that Rhodes was far more familiar with the Cape than any other constituency. Furthermore, despite the fact that the greatest number of Scholarships are allocated to the United States, South Africa has always had the highest number of Scholarships per capita of the major constituencies. This reflects the central importance of South Africa to both Rhodes, the individual, and the Rhodes Trust, a tradition that continues to this day, and which has most recently manifested itself in the formation of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation.

Over the years, as the political geography of South Africa changed, so the Scholarship scheme developed. When the German Rhodes Scholarships were annulled during the First World War, a further five Scholarships were allotted to South Africa. One was created for the Orange Free State and another for the Transvaal. An annually alternating Scholarship was established for Kimberley and Port Elizabeth, while an additional Scholarship was created for the Cape Province in 1922. That established a Scholarship pattern that was to last until 1972: three for Rhodesia, four for the Cape schools, and one for each of the provinces (in 1932, the Port Elizabeth Scholarship was converted into a biennial Eastern Province Scholarship).

In the early days, sporting types were typically chosen over intellectually outstanding candidates, on the basis that Rhodes' Will stipulated that Rhodes Scholars should be "athletic". Inevitably this bias proved controversial, not least because such candidates tended to perform poorly at Oxford. Indeed, in 1929 the Cape Times went so far as to carry a cartoon of an oversized young white man dressed in rugby kit. The circumference of his calf is being measured by an Oxford don. Seated at the table, three of his fellows ask: "Is he up to the standard of our Scholarship?", to which the don replies "Yes, in fact I think his calves are a couple of inches over." In 1945, Bram Gie, the General Secretary of the time, argued that academic and leadership criteria should gain more weight in South African selections, as opposed to sport and character. Today, South African selection committees give the requirement of "athleticism" even less emphasis, and instead interpret it to mean that potential Scholars should display an energetic attitude towards life.

Between 1903 and the mid-1940s the Rhodes Trust made substantial grants to South African universities, schools and training colleges, including grants to what were then called "native education" institutions. However, when South Africa became a republic in 1961, and withdrew from the Commonwealth, a clause in the 1946 Trust legislation made South African benefactions illegal, unless granted from Trust money still invested in the country. A half-century of significant funding to educational initiatives in South Africa had run its course.

It was also during the 1960s, a period during which South Africa's position was worsening internationally, that Rex Welsh took over as South African General Secretary. One of his first moves was to question why six of South Africa's nine Scholarships were located in the Cape province. Accordingly, the biennial Eastern Cape Scholarship was converted into an annual Transvaal Scholarship.

Further changes were prompted by a petition that was circulated amongst Rhodes Scholars in residence at Oxford which spoke of the "stark evil" of racial discrimination in the South African and Rhodesian Scholarships, and which urged that, unless a "fair and not token" number of black Rhodes Scholars were elected, the Scholarship scheme there should be discontinued.

In response, in 1972, Welsh endeavoured to create the conditions for black Rhodes Scholars to be selected by stipulating that provincial committees, with the exception of Natal, should no longer award Scholarships but should instead shortlist finalists, who would then be considered by a South Africa at large committee, which Welsh ensured was multiracial. Welsh also blurred the lines of "South Africa" by establishing a selection committee for Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland and South-West Africa, which shortlisted candidates for South Africa at large selections (a practice that was abandoned in 1982 when these countries were attached to provincial committees). In addition, in 1973 the Rhodes Trust, using money still invested in the country, set up scholarships for promising black students in the last two years of schooling and in their undergraduate studies.

It was only some years later, however, that these initiatives began to bear fruit. In 1976, Ramachandran Govender was selected as the first Indian South African Rhodes Scholar, while, the following year, Loyiso Nongxa, a graduate of the University of Fort Hare, was selected as the first black South African Rhodes Scholar. 1976 was momentous for another reason, in that it was also the first year that a female Rhodes Scholar, Sheila Niven, was selected, thereby ending the requirement that South African Rhodes Scholars should be male.

Despite this, controversy again erupted in 1984 when yet another petition was circulated amongst Scholars in residence. This time, however, the petitioners focused on South Africa's unique schools Scholarships and argued that these discriminated on the basis of race and sex, given that the schools were all male, and two - SACS and Paul Roos - could, by law, not admit blacks. The Rhodes Trust responded by instituting legal proceedings to remove the Scholarships from SACS and Paul Roos, but these were eventually overtaken by the momentous events in South Africa in the early 1990s, which led to democratic elections and the abandonment of the law that prevented SACS and Paul Roos from admitting black students. By that time Rex Welsh had been succeeded as General Secretary by Laurie Ackermann, who has subsequently been succeeded by Edwin Cameron.

In 2003 Rhodes Scholars from around the world celebrated a century of the Scholarships in Cape Town and in London. South African Rhodes Scholars were able to look back over a 100 years of a Scholarship scheme that has had its moments of controversy, but which has also produced an array of individuals who have contributed immeasurably to South Africa, and, more generally, to what Rhodes rather romantically termed "the world's fight". By way of illustration, South African Rhodes Scholars have risen to the top of education (producing four vice-chancellors of South African universities), business (nineteen Rhodes Scholars have achieved top positions in Anglo-American) and the legal profession (two Rhodes Scholars have sat in the Constitutional Court). Further details of former South African Rhodes Scholars are provided elsewhere on this website.

For South African Rhodes Scholars, the centenary was doubly momentous in that it also marked the formation of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation, which continues the tradition of investing Rhodes money in South Africa, and which also, in Nelson Mandela's words, "closes the circle of history" between the South Africa that Rhodes came to in the late nineteenth century, and the very different South Africa of today.

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