18 April 2015 is a special day for Zimbabweans for it marks the 35th birthday of the nation-state. Like any birthday, it provides an opportunity for the living to pause and reflect on the journey travelled and to draw lessons, if any, for the future. A lot can happen in 35 years to allow anyone associated with the story of Zimbabwe to delude themselves into believing that the post-colonial personality and character of the country is independent of the totality of their actions and decisions.
It is often convenient to appropriate all the bad decisions and actions on the state actors but in reality we all cannot escape some sense of culpability. I have written before about Cecil John Rhodes and his legacy not motivated by any desire to glorify him but to recognize that, in life, he was just a man of flesh prosecuting the business of life yet his memory did not expire with his exit. His statue erected 32 years after his death has provided an excuse for people who believe that the ghosts of the past are a relevant and material factor in explaining the perceived lack of progress in transforming the inherited political economy.
There is no doubt that in deciding to be buried in Zimbabwe, the country that was named after him in 1895 when he was still alive, Rhodes must have known that one day, a black President of Zimbabwe and a black President of South Africa would share a stage in which he would be the uniting feature with the President of South Africa occupied with the challenge of his statue and implications on heritage and the President of Zimbabwe accepting Zimbabwe to be an honourable host of his remains. Indeed, President Mugabe, during his recent state to visit to South Africa, was quick to point out the absurdity of the idea of relocating the skeletons of Rhodes.
Rhodes, a foreigner as defined in contemporary South Africa, arrived in South Africa at the age of 16 and died at the age of 48, giving him only 32 years in Africa; became a Prime Minister of the Cape Colony for 6 years. The mere fact that Rhodes rose to the highest office in his adopted home speaks volumes about the importance of rising above the limitations imposed by geography and birth in advancing the cause of human progress.
President Mugabe has been at the helm of the state of Zimbabwe for 3 years more than the entire time that Rhodes lived in Africa. It is common cause that the controversial Rhodes statue was built 32 years after his death and could not, therefore, have played any part in the decision to give life to his stone equivalent. Rhodes clearly did not need a statue to remind successor generations of how he chose to pull his wagon of life.Advertisement
If he had made different choices in life, there is no doubt that in death he could have had the power to cause independent and sovereign persons to choose to remember him in the manner that they did. Many of Africa’s post-colonial actors derive their legitimacy from their associations with the state, yet Rhodes’ legacy is derived from actions that occurred in the corridors of commerce and in the corridors of state power. He was no saint as history will remind us but his experiences are nevertheless relevant in interrogating the promise of independence and the reality of its experience.
It was striking that both Presidents Mugabe and Zuma spoke to the issue of economic freedom and the need to create so-called Black Industrialists. By black, it cannot be concluded that the two Presidents meant the same thing for, in the context of South Africa, the term excludes any black person deemed to be foreign-born, and in the context of Zimbabwe, it means indigenous persons also excluding black persons deemed to be foreign.
What is striking, however, is that in the case of Rhodes there is no record of him having been part of any project by the colonial administration let alone the Imperial administration to empower him but his journey was a personal one that responded to opportunities as they were revealed to him. Rhodes is remembered for what he did and not for what he was told to do by any state actor.
If President Mugabe can acquire fame and the respect of peers who elected him as the Chair of both the AU and SADC principally for allocating God-given resources to indigenous Zimbabweans, then the origins of xenophobic attacks must be understood in a broader context that says if being Zimbabwean can be profitable then why should being South African be less rewarding.
President Mugabe is the most visible and revered eloquent perceived advocate for victims of colonialism. However, by advancing the ideology of indigenisation, he may have unknowingly ignited the xenophobia that, on the surface, manifests itself as some kind of crude afrophobia but, in reality, is a twisted version of a new narrative that creates the persona of an authentic indigenous person that must be always at the top of the opportunity tree.
South Africans who have understood the proper construction of President Mugabe’s idea are now targeting not only Zimbabweans but all foreigners. President Mugabe has claimed that xenophobia and afrophobia are a bad thing when the same idea inspires his worldview. In the case Zimbabwe’s land reform experience, foreign black farm workers were treated in a similar manner. One can assert that if an indigenous person exists in Zimbabwe then the consequences are known and inevitable especially for people who have built successful political careers on hammering the ills of colonialism and foreigners.
Like Rhodes, many of the affected Zimbabweans arrived in South Africa with no promise of success but armed with the age old idea that a society founded on democratic and constitutionalism offers a better promise than societies dominated by a few supposedly wise men and women. Some and not all so-called foreigners have scaled the heights of the opportunity ladder on their own bootstraps yet arguments are being made which are not different from the ones made in Zimbabwe that doors to economic freedom must be closed to so-called foreigners.
Even the language of economic freedom and nationalisation exposes the proponents of their deep seated anti-foreign sentiments. Although Hon Malema attacked President Zuma’s administration in the handling of the current xenophobic attacks, one must appreciate that the idea of an economic freedom fighter is located in the mind-set of people who believe that the universe of fighters is limited to locals. In addition, by advocating ideas of nationalization, one necessarily has to pass the hurdle of defining who is and who is not a national.
There can be no doubt that in the mind of the Commander in Chief, a national can never be construed to include a foreign born African. In addition, it is now accepted that the term black, in terms of black economic empowerment ideology, is exclusionary. The shared view by all actors including those that may pretend, for political expediency, to support the cause of victims of xenophobia is that South Africa is for so-called South Africans; therein lies the incurable mischief and danger.
Independence can be described as the condition of a nation, country, or state in which its residents and population, or some portion thereof, exercise self-government, and usually sovereignty, over the territory. But the post-colonial experience has confirmed the futility of concluding that independence means the same thing as freedom.
Rhodes must have known that through his actions and choices, he had secured a place in the history that even the removal of his statue at University of Cape Town would eradicate or dent. There are far too many reminders of the fact that Rhodes once lived to permit any misguided attempt at diverting attention from what our generation needs to do in order to deliver the promise of a better life in our lifetime and on our terms.
There can be no doubt that Rhodes wrote his own script and obituary. He must have known about the absurdity of imagining and pontificating about transformation and change in the abstract. He also must have known that the man in the mirror is where the problem starts and ends. It would, therefore, be foolish for anyone who was forward-leaning to expect Rhodes to have respect for the natives not because of their skin colour but because he believed that in the supply chain of civilizations, the English idea was at the top of the food chain and, therefore, native civilization was at the bottom of the chain to inspire him to live in a system led by natives.
Although independence restored civil rights to all citizens one cannot conclude that people who occupy state positions truly know what time it is in terms of what inspires a progressive human spirit. Rhodes understood then as we must today that South Africa is an idea that can only live up to its promise if diversity and inclusiveness informs choices. Some may say South Africa is the luckiest country in Africa to host many people who came into the country without any invitation because many African borders are known for providing a one way exit and also for failing to inspire hope.
Although Rhodes was a powerful person in life, what was exported to Zimbabwe was his wasting body. The properties and liquid assets that were associated with him could not fit in his coffin. The land that was deemed to be his remains where it was before he was born and will remain where it is to allow any rational person to accept the proposition that land can be owned by the living. All that Rhodes secured was a negative right to exclude the land so legally defined as his to be available to others involuntarily.
The legacy of Rhodes is pregnant with lessons that can be useful in undertaking any open and candid assessment of the true promise of Uhuru. It cannot be acceptable that under, our watch, some of Africa’s brightest minds are occupied and fixated with the lifeless and harmless which have no conceivable capacity to interfere with any plans of the living to live their lives to the full. Rhodes left England at 16 and knew of what the civilization promised to the living to allow such a young person to make an assessment of what was revealed to him when he arrived in Africa. He could not have been delusionary in arriving at the conclusions that he made.
Zimbabweans and South Africans have had 35 and 21 years respectively to decide whether they wish to map a new pathway or follow the Rhodes trajectory but instead of making choices as Rhodes did that he saw nothing in common with natives, our leaders do not seem to know what they want to see. Rhodes was unapologetic about his vision for Africa and to the extent that both Presidents Mugabe and Zuma communicated in English, it means that his idea was not so crazy that we must use the medium of English to find each other as human beings. However, the state actors of the post-colonial era have failed to listen to the whispers of tomorrow but instead have chosen to be hostages to the ghosts of yesterday.
Rhodes is dead and has been dead since 1902. He is and cannot be relevant in explaining any unpleasantness suffered during the Uhuru journey. There are far too many dead people that remained as irrelevant in death as they were in life to inform any meaningful discourse of Rhodes’ value to the corporate and statecraft heritage of Africa. South Africa is not what it is economically because of some accident of history; it is a consequence of the choices and actions of those like Rhodes who lived before us. Are South Africans and Zimbabweans better for it? I guess the proof of the pudding is in the eating.
President Mugabe boasted rightly or wrongly that he had the best medicine to exterminate the ghosts of Rhodes yet a few days after his state visit, the native savagery and the crude manner of asserting perceived rights must make Rhodes turn in his grave and say to all that his version of enlightened democracy was a correct position. Surely, one would expect Zimbabweans in South Africa to take their rightful places in the indigenisation and empowerment battle just like many white people followed people like Rhodes to stake their claims on what God deposited in Africa’s belly.
Rhodes was honoured by his kith and kin for bringing good things to life and it would be futile to discourage people so empowered from appreciating what they perceived to be the source of the promise. What we are missing after 35 years of independence is our own Rhodes. Indeed, we are fortunate to have lived in a different world to the one that prevailed during Rhodes’ time yet we thrive on looking back to the nasty days when those that came before us were weak instead of using our present circumstances for good.
What was Rhodes’ identity? Did it matter that he was a foreigner? Why did his generation assimilate him instead of neck-lacing him?
April is the month of freedom for both South Africa and Zimbabwe, it is important that we use the time not to celebrate hollow political independence but to think deeply about the true purpose of life and the power of freedom in building societies that work for all.