The Coast of Utopia by Boyd Tonkin

From the kitchen window of my borrowed apartment in Cape Town, I can look up at the grandiose monument to a discredited Utopia. On his sprawling estate at Groote Schuur, below Devil’s Peak on Table Mountain, Cecil John Rhodes hatched his plans for eternal white dominion in Africa – built on the sweat and blood of the Africans who mined the treasures of its earth. After his death in 1902, the architect Sir Herbert Baker designed a neo-classical memorial to the visionary imperialist. Flanked by eight bronze lions and guarded by the artist GF Watts’s sculpture of a leaping horseman, the Rhodes Memorial commands spectacular vistas over two oceans – the Indian and Atlantic – and faces towards the planned starting-point of Rhodes’s never-completed Cape-to-Cairo railway line.

On the nearby Upper Campus of the University of Cape Town – itself built on Rhodes-donated land – a statue of the arch-colonialist once stood. The Rhodes Must Fall campaign of late 2015, part of a broader tide of youthful protest across South Africa, toppled that stone tribute to conquest and control. The Memorial itself, much more imposing and conspicuous, still stands proud. On a sunny summer Sunday in December, diners crowd the adjacent restaurant while a Muslim family poses around Baker’s Greek columns for wedding photographs. On the plinth of Watts’s statue, a stanza from Rudyard Kipling’s poetic homage to Rhodes lauds his ‘immense and brooding spirit’. ‘Living he was the land,’ runs Kipling’s fulsome elegy, ‘and dead,/ His soul shall be her soul!’ Sheer megalomania? In today’s eyes, for sure. But for many decades Rhodes did preserve his name in the titles of two countries moulded in his image: Northern and Southern Rhodesia, now Zambia and Zimbabwe. Further down the hill, Rhodes’s farmhouse headquarters at Groote Schuur became the Cape Town residence for South African presidents – a tradition that Nelson Mandela intermittently sustained. His successors found its use a concession to imperial history too far. Now it serves as a little-visited museum.

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