Students celebrated through the night as Oxford University decided to take down the statue of Cecil John Rhodes from its plinth at Oriel College – in all of this I am staggered that the debate about whether to exhume the old man’s bones has not cropped up.
Despite the respect in Africa for the dead, this was a hot debate more than 20 years ago and I reported on it for television. There were no hashtags in those days so the row was conducted in the newspapers and on the air. Remarkably, it fizzled out and even the late President Robert Mugabe – who was not always kind to colonisers – blocked the exhumation.
The grave lies in one of the most beautiful spots on earth high in the Matopos Hills above Bulawayo in Zimbabwe. I have marvelled at Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janiero, the pyramids of the Sudan, Victoria Falls and the southern Alps of New Zealand; the spot in the Matopos is hauntingly beautiful; just to stand there and see for miles, with the wind rushing through your hair, is more like heaven than earth.
It was a place where Rhodes used to go and think and it is certainly a peaceful site for a grave if ever one existed.
“The peacefulness of it all: the chaotic grandeur of it: it creates a feeling of awe and brings home to one how very small we all are,” he once wrote.
Rhodes was buried there on April 10 1902. He had breathed his last in a beach house in Muizenberg, near Cape Town and a train took his body to Zimbabwe. In the final journey to the hills, twelve black oxen drew the coffin on a gun carriage. Thousands journeyed on carts, along spiralling roads, to pay respect. Chiefs from the land that Rhodes had taken in life respected him in death by saying “Bayethe”- the royal salute – yet, it is sobering to remember that the funeral was segregated – like everywhere else in colonial Africa at the time.
Anyone who wanted to dig Rhodes up would face a severe construction job; workmen carved out the grave, many metres down, in a shaft of sheer rock. The coffin is encased in lead. The get it out you would have to use heavy dynamite. It is as if Rhodes knew what was coming.
The other side of the story – oft quoted by young radicals – is that the spot is a spiritual site, called Malindidzimu. Therefore, by insisting on his burial there, the radicals felt strongly that Rhodes was trying to dominate Zimbabweans – even in death.
This was the argument ventured in the university halls and bars of Harare among the young Turks as the campaign gathered pace in 1998. It was led by the late Warlord Chakaredza who wanted to exhume the bones and throw them into the sea.
“He came from England to Zimbabwe by sea so he must go back the same way,” he told me eyes afire.
Yet the campaign was thwarted and Rhodes lies undisturbed in the rock to this day. Tourists pay money every year to go and see the grave, which means dollars trickle down to the people -somehow.
As for the statue of Rhodes ? I wish all of the world’s unwanted statutes of kings and colonialists and despots – whoever – could be melted down or sold to raise money for homes, food and education for people who need them. It is as simple as that.