MATOBO NATIONAL PARK, Zimbabwe — The remains of British imperialist Cecil John Rhodes lie under a slab of stone atop a granite hill in Zimbabwe, largely unscathed by political ferment over a man whose colonial legacy rankles many in Africa nearly a century after his death.
Lizards scamper around a grave that, while occasionally vandalized, attracts tourists and has been tolerated by longtime ruler President Robert Mugabe, who turned 93 last month. In this picturesque place, the burial site of a historical figure who is increasingly vilified seems secure, for now, in a country that has long accused Western powers of clinging to a colonial mindset.
Monuments to colonial rule have been removed in many countries across Africa, though some remain. There is debate over whether to erase symbols of an era of white domination on the continent or preserve them as cautionary reminders of the past.
“There are certain things in history which you must leave for posterity’s sake,” Dumiso Dabengwa, a former home affairs minister in Zimbabwe who is now an opposition politician. “People must get to know – when they hear about Cecil John Rhodes and they want to see the place where he would want to rest – and be able to make up their minds about the type of man that he was.”
Rhodes, prime minister of the Cape Colony at the southern tip of Africa in the late 19th century, made a fortune in gold and diamond mining and grabbed land from the local population. He was the namesake of territories that eventually became the nations of Zimbabwe – formerly Rhodesia – and Zambia. Accusations that he was a racist have tainted his association with education and philanthropy.
Statues of Rhodes, who died in 1902, were uprooted in Zimbabwean cities after independence from white minority rule in 1980. He became a polarizing figure again in 2015 when students defaced a statue of him at South Africa’s University of Cape Town, which removed the monument. Last year, the University of Oxford in Britain, which allocates scholarships named after Rhodes, said it would not take down a statue of its benefactor despite protests by some students.
The Rhodes grave lies in Matobo National Park, a United Nations heritage site where granite spires and other unusual rock formations captivate visitors, and where indigenous spirits are said to dwell. About 15,000 people visit the grave annually, some ascending to watch the sunset or sunrise, said Moira FitzPatrick, a regional director for a state agency that oversees Zimbabwe’s museums and monuments.
The grave generates badly needed cash in a country beset by economic turmoil. A foreign adult pays USD $15 to get into the park, and then another USD $10 to see the burial site. A Zimbabwean adult pays a total of USD $8.
Mugabe came to this area near Bulawayo in western Zimbabwe for his birthday celebrations last month, addressing thousands of supporters near a school named after Rhodes. While officials announced that the school would be renamed after Matobo – also called Matopo or Matopos by visitors – the president joked about the British empire builder.
“Where is the ghost or spirit of Rhodes coming from?” Mugabe said in the Shona language. “If he is to rise from the dead, I am not going to order the boys to fire one bullet or use an AK-47. I will order them to use a machine gun to crush that head like that of a cobra.”
Amid laughter from the audience, Mugabe continued: “We are not the ones who killed him. We don’t know where he died in South Africa but he demanded that he be buried here. The colonialists here in Zimbabwe listened to his wish, which was written in his will, and buried him here.”
Mugabe, who says he will run in elections next year, has not said where he will be buried. One strong possibility is the National Heroes Acre, a North Korean-built national monument in the capital, Harare, where independence leaders and other prominent Zimbabweans, many linked to Mugabe’s ruling party, are interred.
There has been talk of building a monument to indigenous heroes in the same place as the grave of Rhodes, who had an estate in the area and described the hill where he is buried as the “View of the World.”
Meanwhile, the Zimbabwean government takes an entrepreneurial approach.
The thinking, FitzPatrick said, is “if it’s a tourist spot, then let’s make some money.”
Story: Christopher Torchia