When Rhodes falls, will conscience and consciousness rise in its place?

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“Muster Rhodes is treating Sigcau un-righteously. He will have a fall. He will have a fall,” said Reverend Peter Hargreaves in 1895 to Sir Walter Stanford, the Chief Magistrate of the Eastern Cape. The incident was arguably the start of the “Rhodes must fall” campaign. The increasingly hubristic Rhodes had issued an arbitrary warrant of arrest for the King of the Mpondo nation, iKumkani Sigcau ka Mqikela. If King Sigcau and Rev Hargreaves had not charted a non-violent response a far greater loss of life than occurred in the Jameson fiasco, would almost certainly have occurred.
 

Together with Mark Twain I also frankly confess that I admire Rhodes. However, since I have a principled opposition to capital punishment I would not go quite as far as to say with Twain “when his time comes I shall buy a piece of the rope for a keepsake."

There is no question in my mind that Rhodes certainly ought to have been tried for gross human rights violations committed by him in 1895. No, I am not referring to his conspiracy in the Jameson Fiasco but on the incontrovertible evidence of an even more reckless decision he took some six months before that raid.

The foolish hubristic decision taken by Rhodes was the arbitrary imprisonment of the King of Mpondo iKumkani Sigcau –ka- Mqikela without trial in 1895, just because Rhodes felt he deserved to be taught a lesson to show the Mpondo who was boss. It was a year after the annexation of Pondoland, which ended the sovereign independence of the Mpondo nation, which Judge Albie Sachs sums up. “Troops were massed upon the border, the Cape Prime Minister, Cecil John Rhodes, demonstrated the efficacy of a Maxim gun, and the Mpondo chiefs capitulated without rattling a spear.”

Following the enforced annexation, just as the long-colonised Gcaleka, Mfengu, and Tembu people resented the imposition of taxation, so King Sigcau and his chiefs did not take kindly to the imposition of hut taxes and the arrival of colonial magistrates to “separate the chiefs from their people”. Within a year they complained about the failure of the Colonial Government to honour the terms of the treaty.

To add to the volatility of the situation the conduct of Cape Mounted Riflemen who had arrived with the new magistrates had not made a very good impression on Reverend Hargreaves. He had seen a worrying shift in the culture of policing over the previous decade, ever since the change of policy brought about by Governor Sir Henry Bartle Frere. In 1878 the Frontier Armed and Mounted Police had been reorganised on strict military lines as the Cape Mounted Riflemen (CMR). It was no longer a police service but an army of military occupation. Hargreaves was “worried about the bad influence of the CMR troops.” He regarded them as “godless people” who were “busy playing cricket, quoits and tennis while the natives built the magistrate’s quarters”.

The CMR had already “shown themselves to have no regard for the natives whom they believed to have no rights beyond slaving for the white man,” he wrote in his diary.

Rhodes’s response was characteristically heavy handed. Hargreaves, fearing that Rhodes would follow his policy of “blood and fire” to force his way, was on bended knee anticipating the worst.

The worst came. Rhodes ordered the arrest of Sigcau. However, before the troops could be moved into Pondoland “to crush the life out of these poor people”, as Hargreaves writes, King Sigcau presented himself for arrest at Kokstad.

The detail of the story is worthy of a riveting film script and is narrated in my book The Promise of Justice. It ends with King Sigcau and Rev Hargreaves singing a Te Deum, (or at least the Methodist equivalent) and Rhodes presumably smarting in resentment at having been bridled by the judgment of the Chief Justice Sir Henry de Villiers which concluded that Rhodes “has, I must repeat it, arrested, condemned and sentenced an individual without the intervention of any tribunal, without alleging any necessity for such a proceeding, without first altering the general law to meet the case of that individual, and without giving him any opportunity of being heard in self-defence. The proclamation does not even specify the particular offence of which he has been guilty”.

The numerous biographers of Rhodes gloss over this episode and, so far, I have not been able to find any recorded reaction from Rhodes himself to this final judgment. Not even Olive Schreiner seems to have discerned in the tale of King Sigcau’s bridling of Rhodes autocratic power the embryonic idea that three decades later Mahatma Gandhi, in his philosophy and practice of non-violent civil resistance would perfect. Known as Satyagraha – ‘insistence on truth’ or ‘truth force’ he sparked a movement first in South Africa and then in India which inspired Martin Luther King Jnr in his leadership of the American Civil Rights movement and South African conscientious objectors (myself included) to seek better ways of peace-building than intimidating bursts of machine gun fire on maize fields.

Schreiner was herself a convinced pacifist whose instincts and intuitions suggest she would have thrilled to the story of how King Sigcau prefigured the Gandhian strategy of throwing the moral responsibility on the oppressor to account for his actions, and in the process earning respect and moral authority at the oppressor’s expense.

I have found immense inspiration from the story of how King Sigcau and Rev Hargreaves exemplified the rising of consciousness and conscience and to ensure “Muster Rhodes will have a fall”.

That is why I believe the fall of Rhodes needs to be accompanied by the rise of consciousness and conscience. We need powerful leaders but if South Africa is to transform into the sort of society that students are insisting it becomes, we will require leaders who are true to their inner conscience while at the same time open to the consciousness of what is happening in the world out there. They need to simultaneously obey both the inner stirrings of conscience and the outer stream of consciousness about the discoveries of science and technology, the worsening state of the environment and the perplexing array of socio-economic/socio-political challenges.

All of this is embodied in the triquetra symbol engraved on a Viking rune stone in University Park, Upsalla.

According to Manfred Max-Neef, the three ‘blades’ represent the World Survival Trinity - Nature, Humanity and Technology, in a balanced and indissoluble harmony. Look closer and one notices that the symbol is composed of two oroboros like continuous lines interlaced with each other. The inner line symbolises the necessity of self-awareness, a contemplative journey inward which is about conscience and compassion. The outer line symbolises the journey outward to consciousness: the understanding and embrace of the world out there, by seeking the harmony between Nature, Humanity and Technology that eludes modern society. The two threads must weave together simultaneously. To go only into introspective reflection is depressive. To go on in shit-throwing obsessive activism for forcefully imposed transformation is manic.

I would love to see Rhodes statue gone from the place of prominence he has at my alma mater, a place which helped shape my own consciousness and conscience as a graduate student in theology and religious studies. Although I would love to see in the place of the statue of Rhodes two more worthy historical figures, King Sigcau and Reverend Hargreaves, perhaps a more universally acceptable and inspiring idea would be to have a sculpture done of this thousand year old symbol of transcendence and transformation to help us rise from the traumas of our troubled past

About John GI Clarke

John Clarke hopes to write the wrongs of the world, informed by his experience as a social worker and theologian, to actualise fundamental human rights and satisfy fundamental human needs.  He has lived in the urbanised concentration of Johannesburg, but has worked mainly in the rural reaches of the Wild Coast for the past decade.  From having paid a fortune in toll fees he believes he has earned the right to be critical of Sanral and other extractive institutions, and has not held back while supporting Sustaining the Wild Coast (www.swc.org.za), the Southern African Faith Communities Environment Institute (www.safcei.org.za) and the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance (www.outa.co.za), in various ways.

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