Justin Cartwright: Cecil Rhodes, now in a Jermyn Street blazer, lives on

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There are two aspects of the Thatcher affair which intrigue me. The first is the role of the adventurer in Africa. This is a long and not very honourable tradition. The arch practitioner in Anglophone Africa was Cecil Rhodes. As a private individual, backed by Rothschild's bank, he took over the country of an African king, Lobengula, using his own troops. He later overreached himself by attempting to take the Transvaal from President Paul Kruger.

There are two aspects of the Thatcher affair which intrigue me. The first is the role of the adventurer in Africa. This is a long and not very honourable tradition. The arch practitioner in Anglophone Africa was Cecil Rhodes. As a private individual, backed by Rothschild's bank, he took over the country of an African king, Lobengula, using his own troops. He later overreached himself by attempting to take the Transvaal from President Paul Kruger.

The lure in both cases was gold. Matabeleland was thought to have gold and the Transvaal had the greatest gold reserves the world has ever seen, inconveniently under the control of the Boers. In dealing with the Matabele, Rhodes used the civilisation argument: these benighted savages need us, they will benefit from commerce and industry.

In the second case the argument was different: Kruger will not allow citizenship for the Uitlanders - the foreign influx of miners, capitalists and opportunists - even though they outnumber the Boers. Rhodes presented himself as a champion of democracy. The column led by Jameson was captured; he was sentenced to death, although the sentence was commuted.

Underlying the arrogance and ruthlessness of Cecil Rhodes was an assumption that reached its apogee in the late 19th century but which persisted, in pockets and in saloon bars, until about 1963. This assumption was that the Englishman had drawn first prize in the lottery of life. It was based on the idea that evolution was leading inevitably to a very refined type of chap and that chap was the English gentleman. Naturally his inclinations and tastes were good for the less fortunate. Trade, commerce and the rule of law were essential for the progress of mankind. A stint at public school, rugger, a few cold showers and confidence were all that were needed to rule.

This attitude still lingers among whites in former colonies such as Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa. The black man needs good leadership, at which point he reveals himself to be a fine fellow and a hard worker. Sometimes this demands a little judicious intervention because Africans who achieve power are absolutely corrupt and incompetent. In any bar, in any safari camp, in any farmers' club in Africa, you will find white people who are happy to tell you these things in front of smiling black waiters.

I have no knowledge of what Mark Thatcher has been up to, if anything, but I think itcertain that he has come across more than his ration of adventurers, people who still think that Africa is the preserve of the public school Englishman and his tough side-kicks from the non-commissioned ranks. Quite often this sort of Englishman is a little out of time, believing that a couple of O-levels and a blazer from Jermyn Street are all a man needs to succeed in Africa.

The second aspect of the Thatcher affair that intrigues me is the African response. You can be car-jacked and murdered in South Africa without anyone taking much notice, or you can embezzle money for years (if you are a top person) before the police take action; if you are Winnie Mandela you can get nothing more serious than a rap over the knuckles for appalling crimes. But now, suddenly, the police have moved with alacrity to pin something on Mark Thatcher.

There is a law in South Africa, which came in after various adventures in the Seychelles and neighbouring states, which forbids any resident plotting the overthrow of another government. This, I think, is the nub of the matter: Africans, Thabo Mbeki to the fore, believe with some justice that many white people, and particularly the sort I have described above, have a very flexible attitude to the rule of law in Africa, accompanied by a very low opinion of African leaders.

Mugabe represents to these people the ultimate in corrupt and irrational leadership. But to Mbeki and many Africans, he is a hero of the liberation movement and, in his scorched-earth fashion, an upholder of African dignity. To ditch him or to overthrow any African leader would be to appease the self-serving West. Probably without realising it, Sir Mark Thatcher Bt finds himself at the point of impact between two very different world views. On the one hand we have the tradition of the English adventurer, and on the other the prickly sensitivities of the African. There was something wonderfully, ludicrously anachronistic about his father, the first baronet. Something of the saloon bar philosopher seems to have descended with the title.

Justin Cartwright is a South African-born novelist

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