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Post-Rhodes: Philanthropy and the Randlords


Shelagh Gastrow provides advisory services to the philanthropy sector, higher education advancement and non-profit sustainability. She works with individuals and families on how to integrate their wealth and their values into meaningful and effective philanthropy. From 2002-2015 she was founder and executive director of Inyathelo and focused her efforts on strengthening civil society and universities through programmes to develop their financial sustainability whilst promoting philanthropy in SA. Her work has gained public recognition locally and internationally.

The Rhodes Must Fall movement revealed a conundrum around the issue of philanthropic money and the legacy of those who have lived in different eras with different values. We all live with the legacies bequeathed by various “big men” in particular, legacies that now stretch over a century, and we have to ask ourselves the question of philanthropy and the source of money; the behaviour of the rich; ethics when it comes to accepting funding that might have a dubious origin.

We can postulate on the immorality of wealth accumulation and the extractive nature of capitalism, particularly in the colonial era, but this system remains entrenched today. Accumulated wealth can be distributed in various ways – through taxes by government; through philanthropic giving, or it can simply remain in the family. Can the accumulation of massive wealth be justified? How was the wealth accumulated? Were people negatively affected in the process?

If we object to the concept of giving back to society by wealth that may be ill-gotten, how would we replace this? Do we only want developmental money from the State? Has our experience with the State given us any more confidence relating to delivery than wealth from private sources? These are frequently the debates in philanthropic circles and amongst people who work with philanthropic resources. It is a question of ethics? Should we accept money from the rich, or government (which removes the capacity of civil society to be independent), from the corporate sector (which also has its own agenda) or from international aid agencies that are driven by their foreign policy objectives? The final source of funding or resources is obviously individuals and the people themselves who want to push for change. The question they need to ask is whether they can or would like to achieve their objectives without any other source of funds.

Philanthropy is by no means a new concept and has its roots in all societies. Giving back, communal sharing, faith-based giving, supporting those in need, investing in health, education, the arts or various causes and movements all form part of a global movement.

In the meantime, what is the legacy of those moguls who lived in South Africa a hundred years ago? The group of people called the Randlords, were those individuals and entrepreneurs who made their fortunes, particularly through the development of mining in Kimberley and in the Transvaal in the late 1800s through to World War I. To explore our views on their philanthropic legacy, particularly that of Cecil John Rhodes, we could look at this in context and investigate what else we inherited from the Randlords of the time.

Most of the Randlords came from modest and often very poor backgrounds. Rhodes himself was the son of a pastor and came to South Africa to join his brother, who was running a cotton farm. The reason for the move was that he had tuberculosis and it was felt that the Natal region would assist his recovery. Many of the Randlords were Jewish and, fleeing poverty or the military draft, came from small villages and towns in Europe to seek their fortunes. The rise in wealth of many who joined the rush to Kimberly or the gold fields on the Witwatersrand, enabled them to access elite English society and some even received knighthoods. However, whilst they and their families benefitted from the development of the mines in particular, as well as other associated businesses in a growing economy, there was a general acceptance that philanthropic activity was expected. When Randlord Sir Joseph Benjamin Robinson (1st Baronet), son of an 1820 settler, died in October 1929, leaving nothing to charity, this led to a huge scandal with the local press writing scathing articles about his lack of generosity.

When he died in 1902 aged 48, Cecil John Rhodes was one of the wealthiest people in the world. He had no heirs, and therefore his will outlined the legacy he chose to leave the country. With six million pounds, he provided for the establishment of the Rhodes Scholarships, the world’s first international study programme. It enabled students from countries under British rule or formerly under British rule as well as those from Germany to study at Oxford. One of the objectives of the scholarships was to “render war impossible” by promoting friendship between the great powers. He also left a major piece of land on the slopes of Table Mountain to the South African nation. Some of this became the Upper Campus of the University of Cape Town and some became the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. A substantial amount of the land has remained a nature and conservation space. The Groote Schuur Estate where he lived became the residence of future South African presidents. Land was also left to eventually provide for a university in then-Rhodesia. To quote Rhodes on philanthropy, “Pure philanthropy is very well in its way but philanthropy plus five percent is a good deal better.”

Probably the most effective philanthropist of the time, Alfred Beit, invested in what we would call today “strategic philanthropy” rather than charity. He looked at systems and considered how to build economies, open up countries, particularly through infrastructure. His investment in communications systems would be the equivalent of whole government spending today and I would suggest that there is a lot we can learn from Beit and what became the Beit Trust. Beit was a close ally of Rhodes and died at the age of 53, creating the Beit Trust in his will. It was established with a mandate to invest in what is now Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi with a focus on infrastructure. The Beit Railway fund was created and the money was used to build railways in the region and later for the construction of airports. Most important, however, are the great bridges of Southern and Central Africa. These include the well-known Beit Bridge that spans the Limpopo between South Africa and Zimbabwe, the bridge over the Kafue in Zambia, over the Luangwa between Zambia and Malawi and the Otto Beit Bridge that crosses the Zambezi between Zambia and Zimbabwe. This latter bridge at Chirundu was the first suspension bridge in the world outside of the USA. Critically to development in the region, over 400 smaller bridges were also built, providing for access and communication into rural areas of the region. Yes, Beit amassed a fortune, but his contribution to Central and Southern Africa has been immeasurable and has stood the test of time.

And what of the others? Many of them focused on their art collections, leaving them to the nation. When Abe Bailey, another associate of Rhodes, died in 1940, he left his collection of about 400 works of art to the country and they remain with the South African National Gallery in Cape Town. The trust established in his will also still provides travel bursaries to students under the age of 25. Max Michaelis, an associate of Alfred Beit, donated his collection of Dutch and Flemish art which formed the core of the Michaelis collection which is currently housed in a building on one side of Greenmarket Square in Cape Town. His property, the Montebello Estate in Newlands, Cape Town, was later donated by his son to the University of Cape Town as a design centre. Another Randlord with an art collection was Sir Lionel Phillips, one of the ringleaders of the Jameson Raid. He and his wife, Florence, also left their art collection to the nation, and in particular they contributed to the Rand Regiments Memorial at the Johannesburg zoo.

Finally, while the country’s current focus on legacy has been on statues, it is interesting to note that Sammy Marks, who was a close friend of Paul Kruger, and who played a key role in growing the economy of the then-Transvaal, commissioned the statue of Kruger which is currently in Church Square, Pretoria. The statue was produced by the famous sculptor, Anton van Wouw.

While, in retrospect, we have a great deal to say about the Randlords, most of whom were ardent imperialists and even warlords, the question has to be asked – how will we view some of the current philanthropists in a hundred years’ time? What will we have to say about Tokyo Sexwale, Cyril Ramaphosa and Patrice Motsepe? Will their legacies still be evident? Will we look at higher education institutions or great infrastructure and marvel at what was achieved, even if history judges them as humans or politicians quite severely? Certainly what will we have to say about other African philanthropists who are emerging as the philanthropic movement goes global? These include Aliko Dangote and Tony Elumelu of Nigeria, Strive Masiyiwa of Zimbabwe, Ashish Thakkar of Uganda and many others. Do we have views on how Bill and Melinda Gates are fighting malaria, or how George Soros has promoted open societies? Only the future will tell. DM


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