In 2002 Professor Jakes Gerwel and Dr John Rowett had a counterintuitive idea.
Professor Gerwel was the Chancellor of Rhodes University in South Africa and a Trustee of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, and Dr John Rowett was the CEO of the Rhodes Trust. Dr Rowett was visiting South Africa to attend meetings and to explore possibilities to mark a centenary of the world-renowned Rhodes Scholarships. Cecil Rhodes made his fortune in Southern Africa, and when he died in 1903 he left it in a Trust that established the Rhodes Scholarships. Professor Gerwel and Dr Rowett began to consider what it might mean to begin a new century with a partnership between the Rhodes Trust and the man who embodied South Africa’s new era of freedom – Mr Nelson Mandela. The Rhodes Trust approached Mr Mandela with an idea for a partnership: to return some of Mr Rhodes’ wealth to South Africa and Africa in a symbolic act of reconciliation and reparation.
Mr Mandela agreed to co-found the MRF with the Rhodes Trust. In becoming the Founding Patron he was fully conscious of the tension between his own life and legacy and that of Cecil John Rhodes. Rhodes was an imperialist and a pioneer of the mining industry in colonial South Africa. The men who worked in the mines were separated from their families, who were forced by apartheid law to remain in remote homelands. For Southern Africans, Rhodes’ name is linked to some of the harshest realities of colonial rule. Mr Mandela proceeded with the partnership because he deeply believed in – and stood for – setting aside ideological differences to pursue right outcomes. He had successfully negotiated the transition to democracy and unified the nation by working with the difficult elements of the past and present to build a more just future. The partnership with the Rhodes Trust underlined Mr Mandela’s message and approach of reconciliation and reparation– of taking hands across historic divides that others may deem unbridgeable.
The Mandela Rhodes partnership is a reminder of the responsibility of all parties to participate in repairing the damage of colonial times and rebuilding a new and more just society of equal opportunity for all. The injunction to come together across historic divides is written into the preamble to the South African Constitution. When Mr Mandela was asked about the partnership with the Rhodes Trust, he would simply refer to and reiterate it. The preamble enjoins us to ‘heal the divisions of the past, and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice, and fundamental human rights, and to improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person.’
“Mr Mandela’s agreement to the joining together of the names of Nelson Mandela and Cecil John Rhodes – two famous but historically very different and contrary South African figures – was another example of Mandela not allowing his focus to be distracted by arguments that divide and impede progress. The generous approach by the century-old Rhodes Trust to enter into such a partnership was immediately met with a generosity of spirit that transcended historical ideological differences and concentrated on what could be good for the country and the continent.
It is that single-minded focus on improving the quality of life of people that The Mandela Rhodes Foundation seeks to capture and live out as one of the organisations established by and in the name of Nelson Mandela.”