University of Botswana History Department

The BBC video
"Rhodes: The Life and Legend of Cecil Rhodes"
and historical films about Africa


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An address by Neil Parsons to the University of Botswana History Research Seminar Thurs Sept. 25th, 1997, 7 pm

Video: RHODES: The Life & Legend of Cecil Rhodes London: BBC Video/ BBC Worldwide Ltd (Zenith Production for BBC Television in association with CBC Canada and SABC South Africa), BBCV-5933, 1996. 455 minutes (6 parts). Executive producers: Michael Wearing & Antony Thomas. Written by Antony Thomas, directed by David Drury. Starring Martin Shaw (Rhodes), Neil Pearson (Dr. Jameson), Frances Barber (Countess Radziwell). Described on the video box cover as "A story of diamonds and gold and a lust for power that started wars and destroyed nations".

Simultaneous publications:

Programme Notes and Review

Rhodes, the video, is the outcome of many years of interest on the part of its originator, author, and executive producer Antony Thomas. Antony Thomas was brought up in South Africa during the 1950s when, as part of the backlash against Afrikaner nationalism among English-speaking whites, he was taught to see Rhodes as the progenitor of a liberal multi-racial tradition that had been destroyed by Apartheid. So it came as a shock in later years to discover that Rhodes was a racist and by no means a liberal.

Antony Thomas' book and video shows that Cecil Rhodes came to South Africa as a relatively liberal and open-minded 18-years old, but was corrupted by wealth and power in Kimberley. This insight is drawn from the revisionist history of South Africa of the 1970s-80s, which argued that racial segregation grew out of white capitalist control of black labour in the Kimberley mines.

Historically-minded viewers may recognise other insights drawn from African scholarship since the 1960s, such as the version given as to how Rhodes tricked Lobengula. But there are also throw-backs to older received views, such as the idea that Rhodes redeemed himself by casting his spell over the amaNdebele to quell their Rising.

The video series was shown on British television towards the end of last year. It has still to be shown on South African television, which helped to produce it. BBC-tv promoters successfully aroused controversy by press releases portraying Rhodes as the nasty gay founder of Apartheid. Old flag-waggers, nostalgic for the Empire, dutifully complained. In fact, as you will see, homosexuality is merely hinted at in the video; Rhodes is shown, quite rightly, becoming very close to a couple of handsome young men. This artificially-generated controversy failed to boost the viewer ratings of the series: it was a commercial flop.

You may see other reasons why the series failed to attract viewers.

The recreation of Kimberley and of the dusty veld is splendid in many ways, and so is the recreation of Lobengula's court (even if everyone speaks Zulu rather than Ndebele!). Historians will be delighted to see 'real' historical characters, like Morena-Maaka Shippard, popping in and out of the story. You may spot a few gross historical errors, like misportraying the London missionary at Lobengula's capital as a rather wet Anglican.

But the drama of the series flags because of its reliance on a figure from the end of the story, Countess Radziwell, to stitch the series together - wasting our time at the beginning of each of the six parts, as the bitch from hell trying to dig for dirt back into Rhodes' past, introducing the life of Rhodes as a string of extended flash-backs.

The study of historical film and video by historians is usually considered as part of the new historical field and called Public History. Public History being the study of how history is presented and recreated for public consumption - through public festivals and anniversaries, film and television, drama, music and dance, design and speech fashions, historical textbooks, novels, children's comics and popular biographies, web-sites and advertizing, museums and archives, place and street names, historic sites, monuments and battle-fields, and through tourism, the manufacture of mementoes, and the heritage industry in general.

UB History plans a course in Public History as part of the new Diploma in Museum Studies. The University of the Western Cape, which hosts an ANC archive as well being in charge of the Robben Island heritage site, has recently been advertizing for a Professor of Public History to start off a new programme of study. The University of Cape Town for some years featured a course on Film and History among its third-year History options, which took films of the American-Vietnam War as its case study.

A recent book, Peter Davis' In Darkest Hollywood, suggests some of the ways in which fiction films about Southern Africa can be studied. From The Zulu's Heart of 1908 through The Gods Must be Crazy of 1980 to Mapantsula of 1988, etc.

Film and television studies were appropriated between the 1960s and 1980s by the new disciplines of 'Media Studies' and 'Cultural Studies', with determinedly ahistorical theory choked in the barely comprehensible jargons of semiotics and postmodernism. But historians have learned to fight back. Philip Taylor's Britain and the Cinema in the Second World War, covering both fiction propaganda and propaganda documentaries, is one example. Mark Carnes' Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, with critiques of 62 historical movies from Jurassic Park and The Ten Commandments through Gone with the Wind and Gallipoli to Gandhi, JFK and Nixon, shows how history is represented and misrepresented in the cinema.

Past Imperfect is an excellent example of history AS film, how the past is represented on film. It reviews each film in historical-literary terms, noting how each one derives from and also contributes to popular perceptions of history. But there are also wide open opportunities for the study of history ON film in Africa, and the history of cinema IN Africa.

Film can provide evidence of the past. The history of Botswana on film, if we can ever locate it, ranges from the movie made by W. Butcher at Serowe in 1912, through various snippets on British and South African newsreel films of the 'Movietone' and 'Pathé' ilk, such as British royal visits to Botswana and the Seretse Khama marriage crisis, through to films of Botswana's independence and independence anniversaries. The video section of Radio Botswana, in anticipation of a national television service, has attempted to stockpile some of these films and film-clips. There is also a useful film and video archive attached to the South African National Archives, in Church Street East, Pretoria.

The history of the cinema in Africa is a field of studies in itself, especially the history of film production and distribution for African consumption. Articles by Andrew D. Roberts and others in History in Africa and in the Journal of African History have begun to develop this field. As early as about 1920 a colonial governor of Nyasaland was calling for censorship of films in Africa, as they undermined white moral supremacy. The educational value of cinema was explored in the 1935-37 Bantu Educational Cinema Experiment in British East and Central Africa, and was extolled in a 1944 British colonial office report on Mass Education in African Societies. In 1977 Bellman and Jules-Rosette published a 'phenomenology of filmmaking and an ethnography of mediated communication' in a combined study of a village on the Liberia-Guinea border and Marapodi shanty-township on the outskirts of Lusaka.

Finally, a word about the use of videos in UB History. The Department has a number of video-tapes which need to be catalogued, so that staff can make good use of them. They are probably best shown after normal working hours.

The Department has acquired its own combined video machine and screen. It is at present stored in my office. But until such time as a secure trolley has been delivered, it may only be used in the New Humanities Building. For use in other buildings, or to get a much larger screen, please contact Educational Resources for their equipment.


Africa Film and TV '94 Harare: Z Promotions, 1994. 248 pp. (PO Box 6109, Harare, Zimbabwe: fax. +263-4-725897)

BELLMAN, Beryl L., & Benetta JULES-ROSETTE, A Paradigm for Looking: Cross-Cultural Research with Visual Media Norwood, New Jersey: Ablex Publishing, 1977. 211. ISBN: 0-89391-002-3

CARNES, Mark C. (gen. ed.), Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies New York : Henry Holt & Co. (A Society of American Historians Book, To Encourage Literary Distinction in the Writing of History and Biography), Owl Book edn. 1996. 320 pp. ISBN: 0-8050-3760-8

DAVIS, Peter. In Darkest Hollywood: Exploring the Jungles of Cinema's South Africa Johannesburg: Ravan Press, & Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1996. 214 pp. ISBN: 0-86975-443-2

GREAT BRITAIN, Colonial Office: Advisory Committee on Education in the Colonies, Mass Education in African Societies London: H.M.S.O. (Colonial No. 186), 1944. 63 pp

NOTCUTT, L.A. (ed. G.C. LATHAM), The African and the Cinema: An Account of the Work of the Bantu Educational Cinema Experiment during the Period March 1935 to May 1937 London: Edinburgh House Press (for International Missionary Council), 1937. 256 pp.

TAYLOR, Philip M. (ed.), Britain and the Cinema in the Second World War Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 1988. 210 pp. ISBN: 0-333-444459-0

WAITES, Bernard, Tony BENNETT & Graham MARTIN (comps.), Popular Culture: Past and Present London: Croom Helm/ Open University Press, 1982. 326 pp. ISBN: 0-7099-1909-3

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Copyright © 1999 Neil Parsons
Last updated 19 August 1999