Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Last night it was suggested to me, by a Canadian, that one shouldn't accept a Rhodes Scholarship because Rhodes money is tainted. I found myself disconcerted, partly because the argument had never been put to me before. And this in itself is odd - after all, I'm from South Africa, which was the chief subject of Rhodes' imperialism. You'd think that, if one was to encounter this view anywhere, it would be there. But, on the contrary, not only has this argument never been seriously put to me, but our former President Mandela has gone out of his way to associate himself with the Rhodes Trust. What accounts for this discrepancy?

If I think about my own discipline, law, then its obvious that many of South Africa's greatest lawyers - Etienne Murienik, Edwin Cameron, Bram Fischer, Tony Honere, Laurie Ackerman, Kate O'Regan etc - are all products of the Rhodes Scholarship. And the reason for this is obvious - for a relatively isolated country, the Rhodes provides a vital link to the broader world of ideas. For South Africans, there are relatively few ways for us to make our way to the world's great universities. If I hadn't won a Rhodes, I'd probably be clerking in a Durban law firm. And I'm from the wealthiest class of South African society!

Against this background, quibbling about the ethics of accepting Rhodes money seems something of a luxury, best reserved for wealthier countries, where access to first-class universities is less difficult (in the Canadian context, one thinks of McGill and Toronto). If South Africans such as Fischer and Cameron had refused to accept Rhodes Scholarships, they would have done the country a huge disservice. I think that Mandela knows this and realises that for the new, more inclusive, generation of South Africans, the Rhodes continues to provide a unique opportunity that can only do the country good. And this far outweighs any doubts about the money's provenance.

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