Put Not Your Faith in Princes

When will South Africa’s political intellectuals start allowing themselves to be intellectual? Surely the first step is to, Enlightenment-like, to demand of themselves certain scepticism of all things heroic?

It is child-like to think of a country’s course being decided by superheroes. Politically, it is to forego one’s critical faculties and sense of self. From such simplistic notions of good and bad is born tyranny, and sometimes even great good – but it is a gamble.

In SA, we seem to have decided that particular personages are beyond doubt – Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko, Chris Hani – and certain ones beyond redemption – any white national leader. The latter is a past tense sadness in its a-historical view of life. The former an exceptionally dangerous surrender of thought in the present.

An op-ed headline this weekend’s Saturday Star: “Hani’s moral compass more alive than ever” describes a deification no longer remarked upon. To accept this description, beside simply on his being murdered and having been an opponent of the apartheid system, requires a certain suspension of disbelief.

Hani was after all, no ordinary politician, but leader of a party actively trying to destroy every human right South Africans hold dear. Yet not a word of this openly dated and very Stalinist agenda is mentioned anymore. Why is that?

Nelson Mandela, the personage on whom our national founding myths reside – George Washington-like, is described by anyone working with him in his prime as an ideological bully with a vacuous understanding of what it was he promoted.

He clearly lied about his opponents’ violent actions in the run-up to ’94, and somehow amassed for himself and his family a substantial fortune that was extraordinary for someone starting out after 27 years of imprisonment. No questions are asked.

Steve Biko made an obviously stupid decision to drive through clearly waiting roadblocks of his killers, although this doesn’t itself knock down his own courage – quite the opposite. But his supporters would become a focal point of ANC, not state, violence, in the years after. Again, no questions are asked.

The personages I refer to are used continuously to attack the country’s current leadership, as though one were saintly, the other devil. This might make good politics, but it isn’t true. There are no saints in South Africa’s history, and there are no devils. We’re a more complicated people than that.

– Paul Pereira (first published in The Citizen, 17 April 2013).