With so much power and money at his disposal Rhodes became increasingly arrogant and aggressive. He had grown accustomed to conducting business in a ruthless manner, cutting corners when it suited him, getting his way through bribes or bullying, and even being prepared to use force to implement his schemes, as in the case of his plot to overthrow Lobengula. Any checks on his designs enraged him. He regarded himself as virtually infallible, pouring scorn and abuse on anyone who opposed him. The London directors of the British South Africa Company soon discovered they had no means of controlling him. The Colonial Office came to regard him as reckless and untrustworthy. The British prime minister, Lord Salisbury, sought to restrain him, telling Abercorn in September 1890 that he had ‘had enough of Rhodes’. But the genie was now out of the bottle.
His quest for territory was relentless. ‘I would annex the planets if I could,’ he once told Stead. He despatched agents to obtain ‘treaties’ from as many African chiefs as possible. ‘Take all you can get and ask me afterwards,’ he told one of his officers, Captain Melville Heyman. He acquired ‘exclusive mineral rights’ in Barotseland, north of the Zambezi, for a payment of £2,000. He obtained a treaty in Manicaland, 100 miles inland from the Indian Ocean coastline, conferring not only mineral rights but granting monopolies of public works, including railways, banking, coining money and the manufacture of arms and ammunition - all for an annual subsidy of £100.
He became as obsessed as Kruger with trying to gain access to the coast of Mozambique, plotting to snatch it from the Portuguese. ‘They are a bad race,’ said Rhodes in July 1890, ‘and have had three hundred years on the coast and all they have done is to be a curse to any place they have occupied.’ In December 1890, he ordered his paramilitary police to advance to Pungwe Bay and seize the settlement at Beira, but was told to withdraw by Loch. In May 1891, he made another attempt to occupy Beira but was thwarted by the arrival in the region of Loch’s military adviser, Major Herbert Sapte, who instructed Rhodes’ men to pull out. ‘Why didn’t you put Sapte in irons and say he was drunk?’ Rhodes fulminated when he heard what had happened. He tried to negotiate the takeover of Gazaland and its coastal terrain, sending the Shangane chief an arms delivery in the hope of luring him away from the Portuguese, but was outmanoeuvred once again.
He made repeated efforts to acquire Delagoa Bay from the Portuguese. On his first visit to Pretoria as the Cape’s prime minister in November 1890, he proposed acting in collusion with Kruger to get it:
RHODES: We must work together. I know that the Republic needs a sea-port. You must have Delagoa Bay.
KRUGER: How can we work together that way? The port belongs to the Portuguese, and they will never give it up.
RHODES: We must simply take it.
KRUGER: I can’t take the property of other people . . . a curse rests upon ill-gotten goods.
In 1892, Rhodes launched a scheme for the Cape government to purchase Delagoa Bay. Making enquiries in London, he encountered no objections from British ministers. Lord Rothschild advised him that in view of Portugal’s bankrupt state it might be possible for him to purchase not just Delagoa Bay but the whole of Portuguese East Africa, stretching for 1,300 miles along the coast. Negotiations with the Portuguese, however, eventually came to naught.
Rhodes’ objective, as he explained to the Afrikaner Bond’s annual conference in 1891, was a union of southern African states led by the Cape. ‘The Cape should stretch from Cape Town to the Zambesi with one system of laws, one method of government and one people.’
On the domestic front, Rhodes and the Afrikaner Bond sought to overturn the established tradition of Cape liberalism with a series of measures restricting African rights. Rhodes regarded ‘natives’ as important only as an engine of labour. He frequently referred to them as ‘lazy’, as at best ‘children’, at worst ‘barbarians’, requiring discipline and instruction on ‘the dignity of labour’. He disliked the political role they enjoyed under the Cape constitution, not only because of the threat their number posed to white domination, but because it conflicted with native policy in the Boer republics and Natal with which he hoped eventually to forge a union. He spoke of his own preference for the system in Natal where high property qualifications all but excluded Africans from obtaining the vote. A census in 1891, recording a white population of 376,000 and a black population of 1,150,000, highlighted the risk of continuing with the old liberal formula.
Rhodes made clear his intentions from the outset, supporting a parliamentary amendment to the Masters and Servants Act, proposed by a Bondsman, authorising magistrates to sentence Africans to flogging for trivial offences, such as disobedience to their employers. Opponents of the bill referred to it as ‘Every Man Wallop His Own Nigger Bill’ and succeeded in defeating it.
Rhodes and Hofmeyr launched into more serious business in 1891 proposing new restrictions on voting rights. Though no existing voters were to be disenfranchised, the qualifications needed to obtain a vote were raised to a higher level: the occupational threshold was increased from £25 to £75, and a literacy test was introduced. A petition of protest signed by 10,000 Coloureds and Asians was sent to the Queen, but the British government took no interest. In 1892, the Franchise and Ballot Act became law. The number of eligible black voters was halved: electoral registers showed a decrease of 3,350 Coloured voters and an increase of 4,500 whites.
Rhodes’ agenda was interrupted briefly the following year by a corruption scandal. To the dismay of his more liberal colleagues, Rhodes in office continued to associate with ‘a money-grubbing lot’. In April 1891, John Merriman, who agreed to serve as the government’s treasurer, complained in a letter to a friend that, with few exceptions, ‘all his familiars are self-seekers and stuff him with adulation for their own purposes’. Olive Schreiner urged Rhodes to break with the dubious characters who seemed perpetually to surround him, but Rhodes flew into a rage. ‘Those men my friends?’ he retorted. ‘They are not my friends! They are my tools, and when I have done with them I throw them away.’
Rhodes and Schreiner frequently quarrelled. ‘As long as he and I talked of books and scenery we were very happy,’ she wrote. But on political and social issues and ‘the Native Question’, they often ended ‘by having a big fight, - and Rhodes getting very angry’. Nevertheless, even after the ‘flogging’ debate and Rhodes’ success in restricting the African vote, they continued to meet on good terms. After an encounter at Matjesfontein in September 1892, Olive wrote to her brother, Will Schreiner, a Cambridge-educated lawyer who admired Rhodes, saying she found Rhodes ‘great and sincere himself’ with ‘not a spot of hypocrisy’. When she had tried to argue with him, he had responded that his actions were ‘all based on policy, all policy’. He never claimed he was acting out of principle. It was other men who made capital out of high principle and who became hypocrites when they played Rhodes’ game. ‘In a sense,’ she wrote, ‘Rhodes is the sincerest human being I know; he sees things direct without any veil. There is no man in the world to whom I could show myself so nakedly and who can at times show himself so nakedly to you.’
But the corruption scandal was too much for her and for Merriman. In November 1892, the Cape Times revealed that Rhodes’ close associate James Sivewright, his commissioner for public works, whom he had recently put forward for a knighthood, had awarded a monopoly contract on the entire railways system for a period of eighteen years to a personal friend without taking any competitive bids or informing the government’s law department. Sivewright was a Scottish engineer and speculator who had abused previous public works positions. As head of the Johannesburg Water Company, he had sold it water rights he had earlier acquired for himself for a huge profit. As manager of the Johannesburg Gas Company, he had accepted a large bribe in exchange for signing a contract. A Bondsman and confidant of Hofmeyr, he had joined Rhodes’ cabinet in 1890 but alienated liberal members like Merriman by using underhand methods to try to reinstate a magistrate who had earlier been discharged for harshness and severity towards African offenders.
In September 1892, without advertising for tender, Sivewright gave James Logan, a former railway porter who had acquired a chain of stores along the Cape’s main rail line, a monopoly of food and beverage sales on all Cape trains and in all stations. Disclosing the contract two months later, the Cape Times said it gave off a ‘very ancient and fish-like smell’. Rhodes’ attorney-general, James Rose Innes, recalled: ‘Hardly believing the report, I sent down to the Railways Department and they sent me up a copy of the contract. Anything more improper, in my opinion, it would be difficult to conceive.’
Rhodes agreed to repudiate the contract, but showed considerable reluctance to dismiss Sivewright from his cabinet. When Rose Innes and Merriman threatened to resign, Rhodes still prevaricated. After much devious manoeuvring, Rhodes went to see the governor, offered his resignation, then accepted the governor’s call to reconstitute a government. Rose Innes and Merriman were not included. Merriman was glad to be out of it: ‘Now that the whole thing is over one feels a sense of relief at being free . . . also from [the] Rhodes-Hofmeyr way of doing business - the lobbying, the intrigue and utterly cynical disregard of anything approaching moral principle in the conduct of public affairs.’
As the liberals departed, Vere Stent, a correspondent for the Cape Times, commented: ‘High honesty and a nice sense of honour, brilliant biting wit and moral courage, erudition and fearless criticism, [all] left Rhodes’ cabinet, and the door was open for sycophancy, opportunism and time-serving.’
Olive Schreiner was shocked by the whole affair. ‘I saw that he had deliberately chosen evil,’ she wrote to her sister Ettie. ‘The perception of what his character really was in its inmost depths was one of the most terrible revelations of my life.’ She went on: ‘Rhodes, with all his gifts of genius . . . and below the fascinating surface, the worms of falsehood and corruption creeping.’
In a final encounter, Rhodes and Sivewright met Schreiner at Matjesfontein. ‘We had a talk,’ she recalled, ‘and my disappointment at Rhodes’s action was so great that when both he and Sivewright came forward to shake hands, I turned on my heel and went home.’ Rhodes later invited her to dinner at Groote Schuur, but she refused.
Freed from liberal constraints, Rhodes resumed his ‘native’ agenda, adding the portfolio of Minister of Native Affairs to his duties. The focus of his attention was a small district in the eastern Cape called Glen Grey, which Rhodes decided to use as a prototype for his policy for resolving ‘the Native Question’. Occupied by some 8,000 Thembu families and a sprinkling of white settlers and missionaries, it was a fertile area but overcrowded and overgrazed. It presented in microcosm a range of all the unsolved problems of white expansion into African areas. Whites coveted land there for their own use; many black residents meanwhile were obliged to seek work outside the district to survive.
A government commission in 1893 recommended converting Glen Grey land from communal tenure to individual ownership, with safeguards to prevent wealthy whites getting their hands on new freeholds. It suggested that each black family should be allocated farms of fifty-five morgen, an area that would have enabled male holders to qualify for the vote and brought a potential 8,000 voters on to the electoral roll.
Rhodes fashioned these recommendations into a more desirable formula, presenting to parliament what he called ‘a Native Bill for Africa’. He proposed four-morgen farms, owned on an individual basis by holders who would be prohibited from selling or subdividing them; the farms would pass intact to eldest sons; younger sons would effectively be required to seek work elsewhere in the Cape. A further ‘stimulus to labour’ would be provided by a labour tax of ten shillings a head; it would help combat ‘loafing’. Africans would have to change their habits, said Rhodes. ‘It must be brought home to them that in future nine-tenths of them will have to spend their lives in manual labour, and the sooner that is brought home to them the better.’
Rhodes promised to use revenues from the labour tax to pay for industrial schools where Africans would be taught trades and vocations. They would replace mission schools that were turning out a peculiar class of human being - ‘the Kaffir parson’, he said. ‘Now the Kaffir parson is a most excellent type of individual but he belongs to a class that is overdone’ - ‘a dangerous class’ that would develop into ‘agitators against the government’.
To allay the fear that the Cape electorate would be swamped, Rhodes proposed a separate system of local government for Glen Grey. Though no existing voters would be disenfranchised, no other Africans there would be entitled to vote in Cape elections. The possession of land was specifically ruled out as a qualification for the parliamentary franchise. Instead Glen Grey would be run by its own local council funded by assessments on new property owners, relieving the Cape budget of the burden for local expenditure.
For their part, whites would be barred from buying land in Glen Grey. It was to serve purely as a ‘native reserve’, the first of many. ‘My idea,’ said Rhodes, ‘is that the natives should be in native reserves, and not mixed up with whites at all.’ He envisaged that the Glen Grey system would be extended until it covered all other similar areas in the colony. It could also be used, he said, as a template for other states in southern Africa.
Watching Rhodes explain his bill to parliament, a British journalist, George Green, noted the rapt attention he received, but found his style unappealing. Green wrote:
Being an irreverent newcomer who had not yet fallen under the spell of the magician, I was not very favourably impressed. My sense of propriety was startled by his careless, informal style of oratory. While the House listened breathlessly as to the voice of the Oracle, I . . . could but marvel at his bald diction and rough, unfinished sentences. At intervals he would jerk out a happy, illumining phrase or apt illustration; but the arrangement of the speech was distressingly faulty, and his occasional lapses into falsetto [and] . . . his flounderings rather resembled those of a schoolboy trying to repeat an imperfectly learned lesson.
Critics of the bill, including Merriman and Rose Innes, urged Rhodes to take more time to consider the implications of such far-reaching measures before asking for parliamentary approval. But Rhodes, impatient with parliamentary procedures, insisted on ramming through the bill in short order, sneering at those who stood in his way, repeatedly yelling ‘obstruction’ when challenged by the opposition. At the committee stage he flew into a rage at what he considered unnecessary delay and forced parliament into an all-night sitting. Rose Innes recalled that Rhodes ‘for the first time had publicly displayed that dictatorial and impatient vein with which, in the near future, we were to become familiar’. When the bill was eventually passed in 1894, few changes had been made; only the labour tax proposals were dropped. At the end of the parliamentary session, the Kimberley Advertiser remarked: ‘Parliament is utterly demoralized. Mr Rhodes’s dictatorial demeanour, and even insulting methods, are in great measure responsible . . . Whatever Mr Rhodes may have done for his self-aggrandisement during the past 12 or 15 years, he has at least achieved a record for unparalleled selfish dominance, impatience and grasping.’
Rhodes also threw his weight behind a series of measures increasing social separation between whites and non-whites. Worried about the growing ‘poor white’ problem, Rhodes and Hofmeyr promoted a policy of segregated education, spending government funds to develop white public schools while leaving Coloured education to mission schools. Other discriminatory measures affected prisons, hospitals and juries. Rhodes also supported measures enabling all towns in the Cape to impose evening curfews on Africans, as Kimberley had already done. With the government taking the lead, the practice of segregation steadily spread. Railway officials ensured that first-class carriages were reserved for whites. The Young Men’s Christian Association in Cape Town which had previously allowed Coloureds to sit at the back of their meetings, decided to exclude them, altogether. Sporting activities became increasingly segregated. In 1894, Rhodes’ paper, the Cape Argus declared itself opposed to mixed sport. ‘The races are best socially apart, each good in their way, but a terribly bad mixture.’
Rhodes also turned his attention to the problem of Pondoland. It was the last of the independent chiefdoms on the east coast, lying between the Cape and Natal, with a history of internal strife and disorder. In 1893, the high commissioner, Loch, travelled there for talks with the Mpondo chief, Sigcawu, but was infuriated at being kept waiting for three days for an audience. Rhodes decided to take a personal interest. He described Pondoland as ‘a barbarian power between two civilised powers’ ruled by ‘a drunken savage’ that needed to be annexed. Accompanied by an escort of 100 men from the Cape Mounted Rifles, he set out for Pondoland in a coach drawn by eight cream-coloured horses to inform Sigcawu and his subordinate chiefs of their fate. They were to be ruled by proclamation from Cape Town, enforced by resident magistrates. Having annexed Pondoland, Rhodes then decided that Sigcawu was not being cooperative enough and issued a proclamation for his arrest and detention on the grounds of ‘obstruction’; Sigcawu, he claimed, was a ‘public danger’.
For once, Rhodes’ increasingly arbitrary actions were held in check. When the matter was brought before the Supreme Court, the chief justice, Sir Henry de Villiers, gave a damning verdict. The government, he said, ‘has arrested, condemned and sentenced an individual without the intervention of any tribunal, without alleging the necessity for such a proceeding, without first altering the general law to meet the case of that individual, and without giving him any opportunity of being heard in self-defence’. He continued: ‘Sigcawu, it is true, is a native, but he is a British subject, and there are many Englishmen and others resident in the territories who . . . [if the government’s case was upheld] would be liable to be deprived of their life and property as well as their liberty, otherwise than by the law of the land.’
Sigcawu was duly released.
In parliamentary elections in 1894, Rhodes and his Afrikaner Bond allies won a resounding victory, taking fifty-eight of seventy-six seats. Rhodes’ triumph was due in part to his customary methods of distributing largesse, spending lavishly on behalf of candidates he favoured, defraying the campaign expenses of numerous other candidates, and buying the support of English-language newspapers.
But it was also due to the trust that many Afrikaners placed in Rhodes. He was assiduous in promoting Afrikaner interests, and became a tireless advocate for farmers, farming and agricultural development, setting up the first ministry for agriculture. He pressed Britain to give special preference to the Cape wine trade; promoted fruit exports; and encouraged modern methods of production and disease control. He introduced new American vinestock resistant to phylloxera, an insect infestation that was ravaging the country’s vineyards; sponsored the importation of American ladybirds to control a pest that was laying waste to orange groves; and improved the breeding of horses, cattle and goats by importing Arab stallions, Angora goats and other foreign breeds. He pushed through government measures - unpopular at the time - making the dipping of sheep against scab disease compulsory, effectively saving the wool industry. No previous government had shown such initiative.
Rhodes was also careful to venerate Afrikaner culture and traditions. Herbert Baker, his architect, believed that Rhodes was ‘impelled by a deeper feeling of sympathy for the history of the early settlers and of respect for their achievements in civilisation’. When Merriman suggested that he follow the fashion and build himself ‘a fine Tudor house’ in Cape Town, Rhodes had insisted on rebuilding and furnishing Groote Schuur in accordance with the original Cape Dutch design, and restoring its name. He also restored an old Dutch summer house - a lusthuis - on his estate and took care to protect the grave-yards of three Dutch families which he found neglected there. He commissioned a statue of Jan van Riebeeck, the Dutch commander of the first white settlement at the Cape, to be placed at the foot of Adderley Street.
Afrikaners were also impressed that Rhodes kept an open house for them at Groote Schuur. He displayed none of the reserve and coldness for which the English were renowned, and was affably hospitable to all who came. When a deputation of two hundred backveld sheep farmers were due to call for luncheon to complain about compulsory dipping measures that Rhodes intended to impose, his trusted steward asked whether he should serve some of his less costly wines. Rhodes turned on him angrily, retorting, ‘No, give them of my best.’
All this made his eventual betrayal of the Cape’s Afrikaners even more striking.