Hail to the power of citizens who survive Zuma and his ilk - Business Day

19 February 2018 - It’s a marvel how things change, that to be a Zuma might, implicitly, trump being a Verwoerd. Both men, as it happens, represent a continuum of sorts: the truth about SA, recently addressed by distinguished political analyst RW Johnson, that we are a nation obsessed with Leaders with a capital L.

 

By Michael Morris 

A name can be a mortifying encumbrance, not lightly disowned. And, if freighted with disagreeable associations, not attractive to generosity either.

Arguably, few are as conscious of the penalty as political commentator and former ANC MP Melanie Verwoerd, who confessed in a panel discussion last week that there were times when she was quite willing simply to introduce herself as "Melanie" and leave it at that.

Being a "Verwoerd" — a name she gained through marriage — came with the burden of having at times to get it straight just who she was and where she stood. This is by no means a difficulty, given that she and her former husband have always been progressive and committed to the idea of a common South African citizenship. But still.

So it was, turning up for a recent appointment, that Verwoerd breezily announced herself as "Melanie" before taking her seat in reception with the comfort of casually assumed anonymity. Her heart sank when the receptionist asked for her surname. "It’s not good," Verwoerd confided, as if already shamed — not unmindful of the fact that the woman was African.

The receptionist’s eyes widened and, in a tone half commiserating, half horrified, exclaimed: "It’s not ‘Zuma’, is it!"

It’s a marvel how things change, that to be a Zuma might, implicitly, trump being a Verwoerd. Both men, as it happens, represent a continuum of sorts: the truth about SA, recently addressed by distinguished political analyst RW Johnson, that we are a nation obsessed with Leaders with a capital L.

And who would doubt that Zuma and Verwoerd, big names both, register as men the country could have done without? In Zuma, as Tony Leon wrote last week, we have a man who "metastasised corruption across the entire body politic", a scale of wrongs cuttingly abbreviated in Zapiro’s End of an Error cartoon on Thursday. Worse things will always be said of Verwoerd.

Yet, for all the habitual fixation on the big men of our modern history and the epochal range of their erring or influence, it is easy to overlook the great force of ordinary people, the sum of their getting on and getting along. In Verwoerd’s time, the agency of the unsung and unnamed millions incorporated but actually far exceeded the activism of an accelerating resistance, people who, enduring as best they could, invested in deceptively modest ways in the hopes they nurtured of another kind of life, whatever the deprivations visited from far above.

Historian William Beinart’s comments about the consequences of "Bantu Education" hint at this quality. He noted that overall education provision for Africans rose from about 800,000 school places in 1953 to 1.8-million in 1963, with the numbers expanding even more rapidly thereafter.

There was "gross underfunding" and the whole offering was poor; to start with, many children didn’t get beyond the first four years of school. But the consequences, more widespread literacy, "were to be far less predictable than either its planners or its opponents expected".

Regulation, even coercion, doubtless played a role here, but so did the yearning, the effort and the dreams in hundreds of thousands of households. These very dynamics are everywhere visible today, underscored by Steven Friedman’s remarks on this page last week that "leaders matter, but not nearly as much as our obsession with them assumes" and that "[we] make progress when we worry less about leaders and more about working out what shapes how we live and how we might change it".

Beyond the so-often dubious limelight of statecraft, millions are every day to be found cleaving to values and interests that serve them well and that, broadly speaking, they understand to be shared and to have a common value to all of society. Political greatness lies, perhaps, in harnessing this wisdom, or at the very least admitting it is there, and being willing to learn from it.

If you were looking for a token of this commonwealth of interests sustained despite the depredations of the big men of politics, you could do worse than choose that anonymous receptionist, a cipher for the vast majority, for whom a shared symbol of mortification is "Zuma".

*Michael Morris is head of media at the Institute of Race Relations, a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. 

Read the article on BDLive here.

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