From its perch on Rugby Road, the statue looked out across the playing fields towards the Hottentots Holland Mountains. Behind it on the lower slopes of Devils Peak, rose up the elegant buildings of the University of Cape Town; the twin residences of Smuts and Fuller Halls, and behind them the Arts and Maths buildings, divided by a set of stairs that preserved a view to the temple-like Jameson Hall. The original bronze cast of the statue had faded to green, but the features of the seated man – his chin resting on his right hand – were unmistakable. Cecil John Rhodes’ gift of land had made possible the modern-day campus of the university, one of most magnificent sites in the world for a place of tertiary education.
Rhodes was as well-known for his philanthropy as his role in laying the groundwork for apartheid. More than a hundred years after his death the statue had become a festering sore, a symbol of the university’s Eurocentric focus as well as a reminder of inequality across the nation. Faeces was thrown at it. In the end it went, and the forces that campaigned for its removal sent waves of discontent across the Atlantic, one of which fetched up at the feet of Rhodes’ statue in front of Oriel College at Oxford, his alma mater. Oriel’s Governing Body went the other way, qualifying its decision by saying that a clear historical context was needed to ‘draw attention to history, do justice to the complexity of the debate, and be true to our educational mission.’
It was on the diamond fields of Kimberley where Rhodes made his fortune. From 1871, he started buying up smaller diamond digging claims with his brother, Herbert, persuading local owners to part with their holdings through a series of treaties, concessions and charters. In 1888 these were amalgamated to form De Beers Consolidated Mines – destined to become the dominant player in the market for raw diamonds – with Rhodes at the helm. The following year the Rudd Concession gave Rhodes’ British South Africa Company exclusive mining rights in territories that would become known as Rhodesia – today’s Zambia and Zimbabwe – and the rest, as they say, is history.
In 1889 Harry – I use that name to avoid confusion with his stepfather, but also because it’s the name my grandfather was affectionately known by – acquired another brother. Reuben was the sixth son born to Sarah who, at that point, may have been forgiven for wondering if she would ever produce a girl. This was also the year in which Harry celebrated the Jewish male’s coming-of-age, his barmitzvah. Both events occurred in Kimberley.
The diamond fields were a magnet for adventurers from South Africa as well as abroad, including many of Jewish background like Barney Barnato, Alfred Beit, Isaac Lewis and Sammy Marks. Some made – and lost – their fortunes from diamond trading, while others serviced the diamond-mining community through retail, transport, entertainment, sport and gambling. By 1871, their numbers were sufficient to form a temporary congregation. A foundation stone was laid in 1875 and a year later Kimberley’s first Jewish marriage was celebrated in the newly built synagogue. It was some time, however, before a reliable minister could be attracted to the diamond fields. According to Louis Herrman’s A History of Jews in South Africa, there was:
an unscrupulous self-styled rabbi, engaged in the earlier years of the community’s existence, who had to be dismissed for behaviour not becoming his profession, and who revenged himself by sitting at the door of his tin habitation near the synagogue and publicly desecrating the Day of Atonement by eating forbidden food in the sight of the congregation, what time he jeered at the scandalised worshippers.
The Memorial Road Synagogue is where Kimberley’s Jewish faithful gather to worship. Like many such non-metropolitan South African communities, this one’s glory days are long gone. Today the congregation numbers a handful of families and its president, Barney Horwitz, was disinclined to engage with a stranger on the other side of the world seeking information on nineteenth-century barmitzvah records.
Bernice Nagel, the very patient librarian at Kimberley’s Africana Research Library, pointed out that the Memorial Road Synagogue was not where Harry would have celebrated his barmitzvah. The latter, she said, had been an unpretentious galvanised iron structure with a capacity for 250 worshippers, built at a cost of £3,000 on land granted by the British and South African Exploration Company. It was on Dutoitspan Road, more than a kilometre away. After Rhodes’s death in 1902, the De Beers Company approached the congregation to give up the site in exchange for another in Memorial Road on which they could build a new synagogue. The iron building was demolished and five years later its replacement was unveiled: a 72-ton bronze statue of Rhodes, slightly hunched, astride a horse with a map of Africa in his hands.
Harry finished school in Kimberley. He was sixteen years old, no mean feat for someone who had lived in two countries and four towns. The Cape Colony Government Gazette of 29 July 1892 shows that he matriculated in the ‘pass’ grade; a corresponding calendar of the University of the Cape of Good Hope – the governing body at the time – reveals below average scores for ‘swot subjects’ like history, English and modern literature. He did well at Latin, as I did; unlike me, he had a talent for maths.
The Government Gazette also provides details of schools and towns for the two hundred or so matriculants on the list. With one exception. Instead of a school name, Harry is credited with ‘Priv. St’. The archivist who supplied the information thought that ‘privately schooled’ was a probable explanation, but only after I’d suggested it. I’ve been tempted to draw a parallel with my expulsion from kindergarten for the pine-cone throwing incident. But I know I shouldn’t.