Who was Cecil John Rhodes?


Cecil John Rhodes. Photo sourced

By Sihle Jack

With the controversy surrounding the statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town and the name of my beloved Rhodes University, most South Africans have now found themselves in a situation where they have to Google the man in order to understand what is going on. Not understanding why there has been an uproar from students and South African civilians alike has put many of us in situations where we have had to watch from the side-lines as engaging without any knowledge is not the way to go about having healthy conversations.

The successful #Rhodesmustfall campaign was started by UCT students who felt that the statue did not do much for a university which claims to support the idea of transformation. The end result of this campaign was rather very successful; with the statue finally ‘falling’, or rather, being removed on 9 April 2015 proving that the students’ struggle was not in vain.

Back at Rhodes, we also experienced a spinoff of the institutional transformation situation which led to a lengthy student body talk with the Vice Chancellor, Dr Sizwe Mabizela. The #Rhodessowhite trend on Twitter and on posters around the university library started much debate and led to many words being spewed on the Student Representative Council (SRC’s) Facebook group with most posts addressing the issue of transformation at the University.

Learning about Rhodes and what he stood for would be the best place to start if you want to understand all of the events that have taken place in the last two months. We have made it easy for you to learn about the man who some see as noble and others as ghastly by summarizing his life story.


The statue that caused all the controversy at UCT.

Born in 1853, Rhodes only made his way to South African shores 17 years later after suffering from an asthma related illness. The reason behind him moving to South Africa to live with his older brother was that his parents thought that maybe the difference in weather conditions could help heal him. This indeed helped and led to Rhodes wanting to make something out of himself while in the country with the little bit of money he had loaned from his aunt. It was a known fact that he would become a nonentity had he stayed in England.

After a couple of months of being in South Africa, Rhodes joined the diamond rush and became very involved in South African life. He entered into the political sphere of the country as well as became a businessman and well-known mining magnate.  While Rhodes can be praised for his business mindedness and wanting to expand his business interests he was also a known evil man.

Rhodes thrived on the act of exploiting black labour. Amongst exploitation, Rhodes was instrumental in moving or displacing the people of Basotuland and driving them out of the land that they had owned for many years. His encounters with the Afrikaaners who resided along the Vaal River were not always good. He was also highly disliked amongst the Afrikaners in the area as he always sparked outrage amongst the Afrikaner communities.

He was a well-known imperialist who thought no other human being was better than the British man, a well-known capitalist and politician who later became the Prime Minister of the Cape Colony and a supreme egotist who craved immortality.

Expanding his controlling arm, Rhodes also reached modern day Zimbabwe where he took it upon himself to rename the country Rhodesia.

World’ View, a few kilometres out of Bulawayo in Zimbabwe is where he was laid to rest after having suffered for many years from a heart condition in 1902. The legacy he left was the Rhodes Trust and Rhodes Bursary which offers students from Southern Africa and other parts of the world an opportunity to study at the prestigious Oxford University. There have also been memorials made to commemorate his life.

What is interesting to know is that Rhodes University was initially meant to be Eastern Province University College but because of a shortage in funds, the founders of the university approached the Rhodes Trust with the hopes of getting a donation to start a university in commemoration of Rhodes under the name Rhodes University College. Their application for the bursary was successful and the name Rhodes University stuck.

I walked the streets of Grahamstown talking to some high school children to see what they thought about the Rhodes University name change that has been suggested by transformation groups such as the Black Students Movement and this is what they thought:

” No, I don’t want the name to change. The name holds dignity. I say this because it will look good on anyone’s CV,” said grade 9 Victoria Girls’ High School scholar, Anga Maphaqa.

” I think that the name Rhodes is okay and has always been relevant. What’s more important is getting an education,” expressed Luchulumanco Njokweni, a matric pupil at VG.

Ntombenkopsi George, a grade 11 pupil at Mary Waters had this to say, “The name is fine. What will it change to? There are no strong ideas for a name.”

” I support the idea of a name change because of what I’ve listened to on the news,” said grade 12 pupil, Sibabalwe Stephen of Nombulelo High School.

“I like the name. No need for a change,” exclaimed Elam Dyonase of VG who has already applied to go to Rhodes next year.


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