Cecil Rhodes' Final Project: A Profile of Kimberley and the Compounds


Like Clifton-Morenci, Kimberley was (and remains) situated on the frontier, far removed from the populated cities of Cape Town to the southwest and Johannesburg to the northeast.  The area was once contested territory, bordering between the Boer Republics and Cape Colony, and during the 124 day Siege of Kimberley, the continual shell shots, food rations, and severed telegraph lines gave the town an even deeper sense of isolation and frontier ruggedness.   But Rhodes and De Beers had always maintained a level of control over the town and its people that could not be matched in copper mining regions of the American southwest.  The company shaped their own versions of community and working life and maintained unprecedented levels of control over its employees.  Kenilworth became Rhodes idyllic vision of what a community could look like – filled with orchards, gardens, and wide avenues.  Rhodes envisioned and executed a different plan for his African employees, and once inside the compound, men’s freedoms were severely restricted.  Rhodes and De Beers could not, however, control the community that flourished inside the compound walls.  Men bonded with family in common rituals and developed new relationships playing sports, attending church, or reading the paper.  As men struggled to make sense of their position as workers, migrants, and ultimately, citizens, these bonds became important elements of their battles. Chapter 2 - Sixteen Tons



Migration, Crime, and the Origins of Control

Even before Rhodes had established his diamond empire in the small town of Kimberley, early independent diggers organized to severely limit the rights of African mine workers.  By the 1880s, Rhodes and De Beers worked closely with the Cape Colony government to ensure that policies were implented to strictly control the African labor force.  These policies would become the foundation to South Africa's apartheid state in the next century.

Rhodes' Kimberley

African migrant workers were the most vital employees in the process of mining diamonds at De Beers, but they were not the only one.  The company also employed hundreds of white workers who did not reside in the compound areas.  For these men, Rhodes also took great care and consideration into creating living quarters that would ensure that De Beers would retain a steady supply of skilled laborers and mine managers to run the mines.  Kenilworth was Rhodes’ personal vision of what a model village should look like, and he invested a great deal of time, money and energy into assuring that workers would be comfortably housed here.  When the village first opened to De Beers employees in 1889 there were 24 houses for families with 48 quarters for single men. The demand for the villa-like housing was so popular, that by 1899, there were 119 homes housing a population of over 500.

Compound Life

When Flora Shaw, Colonial Editor to the London Times, was informed that the compounds of Kimberley did not allow a single woman to live inside, she exclaimed, “Ah, now I know what you call a compound.  It is a Monastery of Labour.” Rhodes most likely would have agreed, and inside the compounds, the systematic control of workers became a way to ensure a steady supply of labor to the diamond mines.  While Cecil Rhodes took great care to ensure the white employees of De Beers lived in a well-cared for community, outfitted with the most modern conveniences, inside the walls of the compounds, workers were deprived of their families, their freedoms, and necessary infrastructure.  Yet, visitors like Flora Shaw recorded a different life inside the compounds.  Workers were left to their own means to create a sense of community, and the daily activities inside the compounds suggest that the development of community was not bound to the infrastructural constrictions of De Beers, but by the complex social system workers developed for themselves.
    By 1898, there were ten compounds under the direction of De Beers, with the largest containing 2,800 men.  The compound structures were vast open roof enclosures made of corrugated iron.  Inside, numerous large cabins housed workers’ sleeping quarters.  Other features included a swimming pool, compound stores, hospital, and church.  Rhodes, an enthusiastic arborist, also provided a few shade trees to escape the hot Kimberley sun.  A mesh netting hung over the top of the compound to ensure that diamond thieves could not toss their findings over the walls to collect later.

Vice in the compounds

Activities were not limited to music and sports within the compounds.  Gambling and drinking were part of many workers’ lives despite management’s attempts to curb them.  The practice of both gambling and drinking together, threatened the labor supply, as men that had fallen victim to the practices had little to show from their contract labor after retuning home from the mines.  Management and Native Affairs officials understood that the labor contracts, often negotiated with heads of African nations, were delicate relationships that had to be satisfactorily fulfilled by both parties.