Masterpiece Theatre: Rhodes

Coming to terms with "The African Colossus":
An Interview with ANTONY THOMAS

An award-winning documentary filmmaker of international renown, Antony Thomas achieved notoriety as writer and director of Death of a Princess, which caused a diplomatic rift between the British and Saudi governments--and earned some of the highest ratings in PBS history. His series, The South African Experience, led to Thomas's being banned from his native South Africa in 1977--which didn't stop him from conceiving Rhodes in the early 1980s. Based on a renewed fascination with the celebrated diamond king and empire builder, Cecil Rhodes (a pervasive, posthumous presence during Thomas's upbringing in South Africa in the 1940s and `50s; he moved to England in 1967), and over a decade in the making, Rhodes garnered critical praise when it aired on the BBC. "It is Thomas's finest achievement to have shown us the subtle, elusive side of Rhodes's personality, instead of simply depicting a ruthless tycoon who bribed and bullied his way to power," wrote Richard West in the London Sunday Times. And Nadine Gordimer, speaking of Thomas's definitive companion biography, Rhodes: The Race for Africa, said: "Antony Thomas explores the man's amazing life with lively intelligence, scrupulously fair and informed insight, and...deep understanding..."

Writer Richard Maurer spoke recently with Thomas about his struggle to come to terms with a man who has been called by enemies and admirers alike, "The African Colossus."

How were you taught to regard Rhodes when you were growing up?

I was brought up to revere the man--being from that particular stock of British South Africans for whom Rhodes was incredibly important. It was a time when the empire was shaking. They needed Cecil Rhodes. He was a religious icon; everything about him was. For instance his celibacy, which of course has been the subject of so much speculation, was something that was almost a Christ-like quality that they attributed to him. He was too completely involved with his great mission in life to be able to consider any kind of emotional, physical, or sexual relationship. That was the attitude they had. He was a holy figure.

A little like George Washington in this country?

That's an interesting comparison. I don't know enough about Washington, but I'm sure if you were to really study Washington in depth, it wouldn't be quite such a disillusioning process as studying Rhodes in depth.

What was the beginning of your disillusionment?

I left South Africa in 1967, when I was in my late twenties, and came to England. I had already taken a political course, which for a while led to tremendous tensions between me and the surviving members of my family. And Rhodes was all part of that past that I didn't want to think about. Three years after I arrived in London, a gentleman named Kenneth Griffith, who's an actor-writer with a fiery style of documentary storytelling, asked me if I would direct a program on Rhodes. I read his script and was very shocked by the damning portrait of the man. I did a lot of my own reading and realized how many lies had been told. Also, I was fascinated because Rhodes seemed such an extraordinarily contemporary figure. He has much more in common with a modern tycoon like Rupert Murdoch than with imperial idealists or imperial moneymakers.

Was he a greedy man?

He was not greedy for money in anything like the conventional sense. He regarded money as an instrument of power, an instrument to bribe, an instrument to influence. The accumulation of vast wealth wasn't at the center of this. It's a more naked, primitive thing than that.

And yet he started out as quite idealistic.

Yes, that's one of the fascinating things about him. It really hit me when I read the first batch of letters he wrote when he was seventeen and had just arrived in South Africa. They're not only beautifully written, [with] a sort of artistic sensibility, a kind of sense of place that is at times magical, but they portray a young man who had tremendous respect for African people, a real sense of fairness, which seemed, of course, quite outside its time. That again is something that people misunderstood. The more I read, the more humbled I became by the fact that ideas which we think are part of our own contemporary enlightenment are not new by any means. There were many voices and many opinions in Rhodes's time which were quite as liberal and human as anything we might feel proud of today.

How do you explain the kind of monster he became?

I think it was his sentence of death. When he was twenty-one, he was diagnosed with a heart condition and given only six months to live. Everything changes then. If you are ambitious, if you've got great dreams--and you know you've got imminent death hanging over you--somehow there's no more time for finesse; it's time for shortcuts. His first recorded criminal behavior was over the sabotaging of water pumps. There he was, still in the diamond mines, which were all cut up among hundreds of prospectors. He knew that this thing would only work if there was a monopoly. The commodity [diamonds] itself was valueless; its only value was its rarity. It could never happen with all these competing people. How the hell was he going to control it [the mines]? By controlling the pumps. How do you control the pumps? Well, make sure that not many of them work and people come to you in despair. That was the beginning. And it was just too easy. He was found out, but he used his charm, and he used the old boy network, and it never came to trial. A lot of criminal lives begin like that. By the time he was out of his twenties, he had got rid of all the competition and he held the world's diamonds in his hand. And then, of course, he had the money to fund mercenary armies and take Africa.

Rhodes is famous for saying everyone has his price. Was there anyone in his life who wasn't corrupted?

No one. It's sad, but if there had been somebody who had stood up in his whole long career and said `stop,' maybe things would have developed differently. There is one marvelous moment when he came back from another of his wheeler deals in London having achieved everything he'd ever wanted, and one of his associates remarked that Rhodes is getting more and more nervous and trusts nobody. That's the other side of it, isn't it? If you feel that everyone crumbles before you, your respect for humanity can't be very deep.

Do you think his story could somehow have ended differently?

It's impossible to say. But if that power had been used in a positive way instead of in a self-serving, pragmatic way, what might have happened? You have a situation today where South Africa is desperately seeking overseas investment in order to do all those millions of things that have to be done. Just think of the wealth of South Africa 100 years ago, and the fortunes that were taken out of there. There's an extraordinary irony there. When Rhodes arrived, it was the only society I think where black and white lived together in almost equal terms, because of its backwardness and poverty. Black and white were ready to cross the threshold from a pastoral society to an industrial society at the same time. In some of the mines, blacks owned eighty percent of the claims. Then, largely and very much to do with people like Rhodes, all that possibility was strangled. That's the degree of the crime.

To what extent can Rhodes be blamed for the apartheid system?

It's been comfortable for the British to blame this on the Afrikaners, but all the elements of apartheid were put in place by Rhodes. The first thing is that he enacted a law when he was prime minister that forced blacks into reserves, where they couldn't be self-sufficient. He then imposed a tax on every single hut so that people were forced to sell their labor to the white economy.

The second thing is, he was determined that black people should not have the same education as whites. In the early 19th century, South Africa was a non-racial society. Whites and blacks went to the same schools. He put an end to this. He introduced what he called "agricultural" schools, where blacks were taught to wash clothes, hoe the ground, and so on.

The third thing he did was introduce pass laws. Blacks were forbidden to travel on the same transport as whites; everything was segregated. He did all this half a century before the National Party officially established apartheid.

Is there anything that helped you penetrate his personality?

Funny enough, what helped most was a program I made for WGBH in the early 1980s, called Frank Terpil: Confessions of a Dangerous Man. This supposedly ex-CIA operative had a whole series of crimes alleged against him, from selling top-secret American weaponry to Moammar Qaddafi, to providing torture equipment for Idi Amin, to helping train the Gray Wolves, one of whose members went on to shoot the Pope. When he was brought up for trial in New York, his prosecutor described him as the most dangerous man in the world. And then he disappeared under very strange circumstances. David Fanning, Executive Producer of Frontline, at 'GBH and I were contacted by an intermediary, who said that Frank Terpil was in hiding in the Middle East and would like to talk to us, because we'd made this program called Death of a Princess and Frank's reaction was: "Anyone who had the balls to make that would have the balls to make a program about me." We went out to meet this incredibly villainous man, and it was quite frightening to anticipate. But he proved to be the most attractive, warm, friendly, and unthreatening person I've ever met. That set me reeling.

At that time I had been absorbed by Rhodes for years and years, and had an attitude toward him which was very uncompromising, the attitude one might have for someone like Hitler. I understood a lot through Frank about the nature of charm and the familiarity of evil, and just realized how close this kind of evil is to all of us. Frank had a way of making outrageous behavior seem utterly plausible and normal. He spun my head when it came to thinking about Rhodes. And I don't think I could have written either the script or the biography without having met Frank.

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