Into Africa - tooth and claw

Quite a stir has been caused by Rhodes, the BBC’s latest 10-hour epic. This is not just because it the most expensive BBC series so far, costing some £10 million to produce. The main cause for controversy is over the portrayal of Rhodes himself, which has offended some.

It has enraged many of those on the ‘eccentric’ right such as Paul Johnson of the Daily Mail, who is apoplectic with rage that one of his heroes is shown in such an unsympathetic light. Johnson is particularly offended, it is worth noting, by the monstrous ‘allegation’ - coyly alluded to in Rhodes - that such a fine, upstanding role model as Cecil was in fact gay. To Johnson, of course, this is all proof that Rhodes is yet another ‘loony’ leftwing drama from the Bolshevik Broadcasting Company, determined as it is to undermine the nation’s moral fabric.

On the other hand some have expressed the concern that Rhodes, far from being a leftwing assault on British colonialism, is in fact out to rehabilitate the man, if not imperialism itself. Socialist Worker has worried that Rhodes might end up “prettifying one of the nastiest examples of British imperialism” (September 14), a not unreasonable anxiety in these rightward-moving days.

In some ways, Socialist Worker need not have worried. Cecil Rhodes is definitely not “prettified” by the BBC - far from it, and therein lies the central flaw of Rhodes. The Cecil Rhodes of the BBC’s near hysterical imagination is demonised to the point of absurdity and ultimately becomes an exercise in irrationality. What made the man tick, and the colonial system which spawned him, is obscured behind a welter of semi-operatic malevolence, more at home in a gaudy Victorian melodrama.

This is most clearly expressed by Martin Shaw who portrays the ‘evil’ Cecil. In the publicity material for Rhodes - which in itself could rival a EU butter mountain - Shaw says he interpreted Rhodes as a combination of “Hitler, Napoleon and Saddam Hussein”. And does it tell, with all the “shorthand clichés of demonology” (as one critic in The Guardian memorably, and accurately, observed) being employed to present Rhodes as a caricature of pure evil.

The overwhelming impression any viewer receives from Rhodes - whether it is intended or not is a moot point - is that this one man was responsible for the horrors that afflicted Southern Africa, particularly in the shape of apartheid. Perhaps the loathsome Ian Smith, former racist premier of Rhodesia, had a point when he complained on Radio Four that Rhodes made Cecil Rhodes personally responsible for the creation of apartheid.

When you discover that Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe gave their ‘approval’ to the script of Rhodes it is even less astonishing that the programme is so vacuous and ‘safe’. Both these figures have made their peace with British imperialism and it would be surprising indeed if they give their seal of legitimacy to anything which pinpointed the real source of colonial oppression - ie, capitalism.

Anyone doing Rhodes ‘for real’ would have been forced to indict British bourgeois democracy and the mother of all parliaments, which cheerfully assented to the hideous murder and robbery of the African peoples.

Rhodes and his fellow white pioneers behaved according to the ‘norms’ of British imperialism and were no worse than the other colonial settlers who set foot in North America, South America, Australia, Ireland and everywhere else subjugated by colonialism. Let us not forget that the spirit of Rhodes still lives on, whether it is in the shape of Zionism and the state of Israel or in the White House.

Eddie Ford