This is a lightly edited excerpt from chapter six of Rogues’ Gallery: An Irreverent History of Corruption in South Africa, from the VOC to the ANC (Penguin Random House, 2021) by Matthew Blackman and Nick Dall.
By 1898, Cecil Rhodes felt he had served his time in the political wilderness, having stepped down in 1896 as prime minister after the Jameson Raid. But he now thought himself ready to become prime minister once again – just in time for a new Cape election. The election would turn out to be “the most corrupt, libellous and closely contested in Cape history”.
One of the first steps Rhodes would take in his attempt to re-enter the political fray was to buy out newspapers like Kimberley’s daily paper, the Diamond Fields Advertiser. The DFA was of particular strategic interest: not only had it previously taken a decidedly anti-Rhodes stance, but it was also circulated near to the parliamentary seat he would run for at Barkly West. Rhodes, being one of the largest employers in the area, still had a groundswell of popularity in the town. But the outcome of the election rested on two groups of potential swing voters: the group of diamond miners known as the River Diggers and the Black vote. Rhodes had said before that he was “not going to the native vote for support”. But, in 1898, go to them he did.
Barkly West had one of the largest proportions of Black voters in the Colony. Rhodes also knew that he would be facing stiff opposition from Olive Schreiner and her husband, Samuel Cronwright-Schreiner, who were living in Kimberley at the time. Rhodes seems to have possibly been behind getting Samuel Cronwright-Schreiner struck off the voters’ roll in revenge for both Olive’s book Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland and Samuel’s famous speech in the Kimberley town hall, “The Political Situation”, both of which had excoriated Rhodes for his reactionary racist policies. The book had as its frontispiece the hanging of three Ndebele men by Rhodes’ troopers in Bulawayo.
Unable to contest the election himself, Cronwright-Schreiner had convinced a young, single-minded lawyer by the name of Henry Burton to take up the challenge of defeating Rhodes. Burton had become well known in Kimberley for defending Black citizens who had fallen foul of the racist laws in the Cape Colony in the 1890s, in particular the pass laws. Burton was widely considered to be a “friend of the native”.
However, Burton (like many liberals, including John X Merriman) had found himself needing to align with the Bond Party in order to stand up to Rhodes and his Progressive Party. Burton and Samuel Cronwright-Schreiner set about trying to persuade Black voters to vote against Rhodes. In doing so, they distributed the image of the hanging that appeared in Olive’s book. On the pamphlet were written the words “How the Natives are ruled under Cecil Rhodes’ Company”.
Rhodes eager to win the Black vote in the Colony changed his election slogan from “Equal rights for all white men” to “Equal rights for all civilised men” (back then, “civilised” generally and roughly meant people of all races who could read and write – that is men that had the vote).
Rhodes was reported to have held several meetings with the Black population of Barkly West, where he was said to have explained away Burton and Cronwright-Schreiner’s image of the hanging. As Rhodes’s paper the Diamond Fields Advertiser reported on 4 August 1898: “Rhodes met about 200 natives, mostly voters, and explained the matter to them. He answered what he described as the lies which had been told about him. At the meeting he showed that the Blacks had equal rights with the whites in Rhodesia, for he said, ‘If I wish to do otherwise I could not, as the country is directly under your Queen.’
In referring to the Glen Grey Act, Mr Rhodes said the Bond wished to drive the natives from the territory concerned, where, as he said the land was reserved for them. As to the [image of the hanging] he knocked the bottom out of the Bond myths by explaining that the persons hanged were not hanged as natives but as murderers. ‘Would you not do the same?’ he asked. ‘Yes’ answered a chorus of natives in their mother tongue.”
What was perhaps most untrue among these statements was that Black and white people in Rhodesia had equal rights. To say the Queen had control over Rhodesia was another barefaced lie, as the country was run entirely at the whim of Rhodes and the rules of his British South Africa Company. Also false were his claims about the 1894 Glen Grey Act. Calling it a piece of legislation created to protect Black interests was disingenuous to say the least – it was, in fact, the first case of Bantustan (or homeland) legislation in South Africa. Rose Innes and Merriman opposed the legislation and even London objected to it, but it passed into law with the support of the Bond.
The legislation fined any Black male ten shillings if they did not work outside their district in the Eastern Cape – thus enforcing migrant labour. Rhodes’ defenders have claimed that, through the Glen Grey Act, he intended to “stimulate” men through taxation to, as he put it, “recognise the dignity of labour”. Here, one can’t help but remember that above the gates of Auschwitz hung a sign saying Arbeit Macht Frei – Work Sets You Free.
What was more, Rhodes had openly pursued a policy of terror in Rhodesia. While leading his column of troopers, he had urged them to “kill all you can as it serves as a lesson to them”. Rhodes also participated in burning settlements and encouraging the indiscriminate massacres of men, women and children. He is said to have taken great pleasure in personally counting the dead bodies after such events. Witnesses also attested that the men hanged at the tree in Bulawayo were not murderers, as Rhodes had claimed when speaking in Barkly West.
As Frank Sykes wrote in his 1897 book With Plumer in Matabeleland, “What rebel spies were caught were summarily tried and hanged. There is a tree, known as the hanging tree, to the north of the town, which did service as gallows. Hither the doomed men were conveyed. On the ropes being fastened to their necks, they were made to climb along an overhanging branch, and thence were pushed or compelled to jump into the space after a ‘last look at Bulawayo’. Their bodies were left suspended for 24 hours.”
The election campaign of 1898 was full of false claims, obfuscations and electoral bribery, but by the end of it, Rhodes (and his running mate James Hill) came up trumps. Rhodes had clearly convinced enough of the miners in the area, and a sizable Black contingent of voters, that he was the man for the job. In the end, Rhodes acquired 1 405 votes to Burton’s 844.
As Hofmeyr would write to Burton shortly after the election, “defeat was not such a very great disappointment to one”, and considering Rhodes’s wealth and status, “you made a gallant fight of it”. One person whom Burton did persuade to vote for him was a young court translator called Sol Plaatje. Plaatje, one of the founders of the ANC, admitted as much in his diary, noting the local missionaries’ displeasure with his decision (the missionaries in the area largely supported Rhodes).
But Burton had not given up the fight. After Hofmeyr promised him £200 for legal fees, he launched a petition against Rhodes and Hill, stating that they had engaged in both bribery and corrupt practices” during the election. The case would be heard in front of Judge de Villiers, a man whom Rhodes had briefly tried to make prime minister after the Logan Scandal.
Interestingly, De Villiers is listed as an original shareholder in the British South Africa Company, holding 750 shares “gifted” to him by Rhodes. Rhodes had also offered De Villiers the chairmanship of the local board of the company. This De Villiers refused. And considering what was to follow, it is worth noting that these offers, which were directed at the likes of De Villiers (and Rose Innes), were considered at the time to be “approaching bribery”. Now Rhodes and De Villiers would face one another as accused and judge.