Was Cecil Rhodes really a genius?

By studying the actions of his British South Africa Company (BSAC) in present day Zambia, starting about 1890, the answer is an emphatic: No.

Lusaka, Zambia. Image credit Bengt Flemark via Flickr CC.

We owe a great deal of gratitude to the students at the University of Cape Town whose #RhodesMustFall campaign has forced us to reengage and debate, in a new and invigorated manner, the legacy of Cecil John Rhodes. Because of their brave and spirited campaign, a lot more people now know a little more about Rhodes than they did before. That in itself is quite an achievement. 

Parsing the online conversations around Rhodes’ legacy, one sees the claim advanced that Rhodes was an entrepreneurial genius. The proof of this assertion is seen in the wealth that Rhodes accumulated over his lifetime: So much wealth could only ever have been amassed by a captain of industry. The claim is often made by those pushing for a “bigger picture” appraisal of Rhodes’ legacy: Being a captain of industry is an achievement worthy of memorials of one type or the other. But I have also noticed that even those who, on the whole, are critical of Rhodes’ legacy tend to concede, perhaps implicitly, the point about Rhodes’ entrepreneurial genius and choose instead to focus on other aspects of his life in making their case.

But was Rhodes really an entrepreneurial genius? Perhaps we can gain some insight into Rhodes’ alleged entrepreneurial abilities by studying the actions of his British South Africa Company (BSAC) in present day Zambia starting about 1890. The BSAC was put together by Rhodes to facilitate his acquisition of mining rights across Southern Africa. It also “administered” the territories of Northern Rhodesia and Southern Rhodesia for close to 30 years from around the 1890s to the 1920s. (This is akin to, say, Royal Dutch Shell running a country today!). David Posner, in his highly insightful book on ethnicity in Zambia, Institutions and Ethnic Politics in Africa, describes the activities of the BSAC thus (emphasis mine):

“The BSAC took over the administration of the territory that later became Zambia in 1894. The company sought to administer the territory with two goals in mind: First, it sought to extract labour from the local population to sustain its mining efforts and satisfy the demands of its white settler population for African workers. Second, it sought to minimize costs. Taxation was embraced from the beginning as the key vehicle for achieving both of these goals. It not only generated revenue but, because taxes were payable in cash only, it induced large numbers of African men to take up wage employment for Europeans…[T]axation quickly became the heart and soul of Company government in Northern Rhodesia.” (p26 – 27).

In administering the tax, the company faced manpower constraints and therefore devised a system whereby indigenous chiefs would be the local tax collecting “agents” of the BSAC. In exchange, the chief’s position as local leader would be guaranteed in addition to receiving a commission for collecting taxes. To ensure that this system worked efficiently, “the BSAC implemented a series of administrative actions to bolster the authority of existing chiefs and to create new chiefs where they did not exist but would be administratively helpful. [These administrative actions] gave the company the power to appoint and dismiss chiefs as it saw fit and provided for the fining and imprisonment of subjects who failed to carry out their chief’s orders.” (p.28 – 29)

Posner then talks about the profound long-term impacts that these policies had on the structure of Zambian society:

“The decision to use chiefs as agents of rural tax collection, and the policies employed to solve the various problems that arose as a consequence of this decision, had important implications for the structure of [Zambian] society and for the nature of post-colonial identities. These policies transformed chiefs from embodiments of customary authority into agents of European administration, and tribes from communities with fluid boundaries and varying degrees of internal cohesion into entities that, while not entirely fixed or uniform, were far more territory bound and standardized in their social and political organization than in the past”. (p30).

In other words, the selfish actions of the BSAC had the impact of driving a wedge between chiefs and their subjects as well as making ethnicity a salient feature of Zambian society. The worrying levels of ethnic mistrust in contemporary Zambia might be attributable in part to the actions of Rhodes’ BSAC in these early days. 

The use of the “hut tax” to extract cheap African labour was not a tactic used exclusively in Northern Rhodesia. It was the modus operandi of Rhodes and his BSAC over much of Southern Africa. It was used to much success in Southern Rhodesia. Charles Feinstein in his authoritative book on South African economic history, An Economic History of South Africa: Conquest, Discrimination, and Development, credits the tax in enabling the take-off of South Africa’s mining sector in the 19th Century. And Rhodes had significant interests in South Africa’s gold and diamond mines

So whatever fairy tales we like to tell about Rhodes’ entrepreneurial genius should include stories of how cheap African labour, which was forcibly obtained, was a cornerstone of his enterprise. It hardly takes a genius to make a lot of money under those circumstances. I suppose I too would have a scholarship named after me had I employed to perfection Rhodes’ blueprint to riches.

Further Reading


In this post, the writer, from Cape Town, reflects on the life of her working class father, who like her friends’ fathers worked tough jobs for low pay, and hid his vulnerabilities.

Power to the People

This week’s episode of AIAC Talk is a replay of the launch of the latest issue of Amandla! magazine, a South African publication advancing radical left perspectives for change.