CECIL AND PRECIOUS


 

RHODES MEMORIAL

Rhodes Memorial, Cape Town, © Sylvia Selzer 2009

 

‘Equal rights for all civilized men south of the Zambesi!’

Cecil Rhodes

 

I

 

Apparently, he loved the view from this spot –

the north east slopes of Table Mountain – indeed,

owned much of the foreground. The sycophants

of Cape Town built, with granite quarried

from the mountain itself, this monument –

with Doric columns and arcades (which he

so revered, apparently), bronze lions à la

Trafalgar Square and a pensive, almost

wistful, bust of Cecil, clergyman’s son,

diamond broker, chancer.

 

 

II

 

The wooden bench from which he so enjoyed

the view survives below the monument

and on which he might have preferred a brass plaque

but perhaps not. He bequeathed the mountainside

to the nation and so ensured its slopes

preserved. We brunched at the restaurant

among the pines. At the next table,

a Coloured waiter served an Asian man

and a Black woman Italian Tomato

Soup and Quiche of the Day.

 

The air was pellucid, alpine. Oddly,

a Marsh Harrier circled above us –

yet this was beautiful. The restaurant

suggested his wish had been achieved

though not, of course, quite as he intended!

Below were the airport, disused cooling towers,

the Guguletsu township and, out of sight,

beyond the mountains that bound the horizon,

his unrealised, longed for, imperial road

from the Cape  to Cairo.

 

 

III

 

When we returned to our rented villa

in Newlands, Precious, our maid, was leaving

to catch her train for Guguletsu.

This was her first time at the villa

so she was nervous. She would be home before

nightfall but she must walk through the dark

in the morning, evading the tsotsis.

Her daughter had stayed on at school, planned

to go to Rhodes University, planned

to leave South Africa.

 

We could not assuage Precious’ fear. We thanked her

for looking after us. We became used

to the gratings on all of the windows.

We felt safe behind the garden’s high walls.

From the verandah, we watched the mist

pour down Table Mountain like dry ice –

and listened to a pair of  Sugarbirds sing

in the Jacaranda. So nothing had changed

yet everything had changed.

 

 

IV

 

Someone in black spray paint had, as it were,

crossed out Rudyard Kipling’s words on the plinth

beneath the bust: THE IMMENSE AND BROODING

SPIRIT STILL SHALL QUICKEN AND CONTROL

LIVING HE WAS THE LAND AND DEAD HIS SOUL

SHALL BE HER SOUL. The same hand probably

had sprayed the plinth, at the foot of the steps,

with: ‘reject racist heroes’. It supports,

on a rearing bronze horse, a bronze horseman

looking for the future.

 

 

Note: first published on the site in January 2012 and subsequently published at http://www.sylviaselzer.com/2015/06/14/the-rhodes-memorial-cape-town/.

 

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

  1. #1 by J M Hincks - May 29th, 2013 at 13:52

    Dear David,

    Having lived in Southern Rhodesia and travelled extensively over Northern Rhodesia, Nyasaland, Mosambique and South Africa in the early 1960’s, I think that you have a very biased and naive anti-colonial view of what many of the the white men were trying to achieve in those days. I could go on, but perhaps you ought to consult the old boy who was Governor-General of Nyasaland during this period who was out there working his guts out, and not living a lifetime in splendid isolation in mid-Cheshire. You cannot blame all of Africas problems on the Colonial Powers, especially UK. The best thing we gave the colonies was our language. Look how that helps them nowadays on the world stage!

    I hope that you do not take offence with my comments, but I do feel that nowadays in the UK we should not install in our children how bad we all were, without giving the other side of the coin.

    John M Hincks

  2. #2 by David Selzer - May 30th, 2013 at 08:50

    Many thanks for your comment, John. I am not in the least bit offended. Nothing is more flattering to a writer than to provoke dissent!

    Seriously, like you, I believe we should, as a society and a nation, examine and debate the origins, development and legacy of the British Empire. All three issues are current and will remain so, I believe, until the end of this century at least.

    I hope your comment stimulates debate on the site.

  3. #3 by Howard Gardener - May 30th, 2013 at 14:46

    I’ve never been to South Africa so I can’t really comment with any authority on the rights and wrongs of the debate. A friend of mine though, who visited some twenty years ago or more, told me just how easy it was to slip into the system operating at the time. The whites, he said, owned the supermarkets, the Asians ran them and the black people carried one’s groceries to one’s car and operated the meat slicers (without guards in place to protect their hands). He was a very aware chap but felt absolutely powerless to change the system as a temporary visitor.

    My point, I suppose, is that none of these problems will ever be solved without a huge change of attitude. If history does tend to suggest that the British were so much at fault, the passage of time will only reinforce that notion unless new evidence is brought to the table, as it were. Therefore I applaud Mr Hincks’ attempt to redress the balance from an informed point of view and David for commenting so delicately, in the first instance, with his poem.

    We all know that words – in the shape of an idea – can move mountains. They can also, if sufficiently dressed up, be used just to sell an uncomfortable concept to an ignorant populace. Has the system changed that much? If not, then the debate will continue to be just words of the latter kind.

  4. #4 by J M Hincks - May 30th, 2013 at 19:21

    Dear David,

    Thank you for your reply. I quite agree with you that we need to especially examine the legacy of the British Empire, but perhaps we live too close to it at the moment. Even my own children, now in their mid 40’s, seem to think it was full of heartless white Bwanas, Pukka Sahibs and filthy rich Taipans, me of course being one of them! But there is no doubt there were some around at the time.

    BP’s World legacy was, of course, Scouting, likewise Rhodes left the Rhodes Scholarships. However, I tend to think of the lonely, isolated District Officers applying Law and Order with little or no support; the brave Missionaries and their wives preaching ‘Religion’ and teaching the village children for free and making a good job of it, even if they gave them European names! Very difficult to pronounce some African names when there was no written language. Likewise the Farmers who took over virgin land, gave lots of local employment; their Wives who ran Farm Medical posts and Schools for their Husband’s workers and families.How many of them were killed in their beds by the Mau Mau and Mugabe’s terrorists?

    I never supported Apartheid nor did many of the ex British stock. The Boers were another breed. I do feel that the British Government (H. Wilson) should have supported the Central African Federation longer as it was going in the right direction, albeit slowly. UDI then eventually changed the complete ballgame in favour of Mugabe’s Terrorists/Freedom Fighters. Even 50 years later, due to Mugabe’s continuing reign of terror, my heart still bleeds for the 100 or so Askari and their Families that I had to leave behind when UDI was declared. Unless they backed Mugabe later they will have had an awful past 50 years. The Far East and India are another story.
    .
    In addition perhaps in the future we should be discussing the UK and the EU, or even Scottish Independence? These I feel are the key areas that are going to effect the UK in the future irrespective of Bankers, Multi-Nationals and the Euro! There appears to be little solid informed debate on the EU and Scottish Independence in the media, just a load of biased knee jerk reactions.

    Well, living in Germany it’s food for thought!

    With best Wishes,
    John

  5. #5 by David Cracknell - May 31st, 2013 at 11:33

    David Selzer must be encouraged by the discussion that his poem ‘Cecil and Precious’ has started. What is it about the British Empire version of European colonialism that stirs so much passion and difference of opinion? Pride, guilt, mistrust of difference and diversity…?

    Does it have anything to do with our own history in Britain as colonial dependencies of other ancient powers? I still have a series of maps of Britain at the time of the Roman Empire from a history textbook from my time at school in the 1950s. They set out to represent graphically the Roman invasion northwards from the Channel bridgehead 2,000 years ago. The map is highly simplified and although not quite at the level of the spoof “1066 and all that” it is clear that the light of civilisation eclipsing the darkness of savage, native Britons was to be regarded as unalloyed progress. Thankfully as I went on to study history in more depth and grew up, I understood that life and living is much more complicated and that facts and feelings play their part in constructing confusing webs of evidence, myth and prejudice.

    I felt that David Selzer’s poem surfaced some important ideas and also grounded them powerfully in the landscape of a contemporary experience of South Africa. The poem might raise issues for readers about colonialism and the enduring effects of exploration, engagement, conquest and exploitation but also for others the power of shared human experiences and a common struggle for identity and respect that runs like a thread through history. “…So nothing had changed but everything had changed”

    New light was shed on these issues for me recently by reading three very different books: two by Sir Harry Johnston: “Britain Across the Seas: Africa – A history and description of the British Empire in Africa” (1910) full text downloaded at: http://archive.org/details/britainacrosssea00johnuoft ; and his “History of the Colonisation of Africa by Alien Races. ” (1899) download: http://archive.org/details/cu31924074488234 ; but then a much more recent perspective: D M Hughes (2010) ” Whiteness in Zimbabwe: Race, Landscape and the Problem of Belonging.” (details on Amazon). Johnston gives fascinating contemporary insights into the mind-set of leaders of the British Empire and compares colonial action by Britain very favourably with that of its European competitors. Hughes was born in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe (a country not “south of the Zambezi” of course but which took on Cecil’s name) and has researched the minority white community in some depth. His tracking and interpretation of the connections and feelings that local white writers and farmers have had with the landscape of Britain and their approach towards the very different landscape of the high African plateau and their search to establish their own identity in an alien land is fascinating. He links writers like Doris Lessing and the influence on them of the English Romantic poets with the sea in a “land locked” country, the impact of the construction of the vast lake of Kariba and more recent improvements with smaller irrigation dams on farms by white Zimbabweans who stay in the land seeking to forge new identities. Landscape and culture combine.

    My personal experiences in South Africa resonate confusingly and with disconcerting power in my memory too. So thank you, David, for this poem which re-kindled and re-positioned those memories for me, including physical details such the awesome sight of unstable cloud pouring over the ridges of Table Mountain in bright sunlight “like dry ice” and the chaos of the township viewed from above and up a mountain. But maybe if we are “looking for the future” along with Cecil Rhodes and his horseman we too might reflect on where we are, who we are, and what we might become?

(will not be published)

  1. No trackbacks yet.