Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Like Whitman, Mandela contains multitudes

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10 Dec 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  BDlive

It is difficult to pay tribute to Mandela without resorting to cliché and overworked superlatives, writes Tony Leon

PARLIAMENT was recalled on Monday to pay homage to Nelson Mandela, who in death achieved what he managed in his later life to do as none before him had done. He united our fractious local polity and the wider disunited world, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.

English Premier League football players, platoons of leaders from the good and the great to the venal and corrupt, the religious and the secular, the famous and the obscure, bow their heads to acknowledge the passage of greatness.

Born among peasants and chiefs in Mveso in rural Transkei, he died in Lower Houghton, Johannesburg, the historic lair of our mining Randlords.

It is very difficult to pay tribute to such a rare phenomenon as Mandela without resorting to cliché and overworked superlatives.

When, on March 26 1999, the same Parliament, gathered to pay tribute to a very live and alert Mandela, on his departure from what his biographer Anthony Sampson called "the golden perch" of his presidency, the cliché-machine was also in overdrive. This was necessitated because words sometimes seem unequal to capturing heroic deeds.

In Parliament more than years 13 ago, I wondered how a political opponent pays tribute to this singular president.

He was both a staunch and wily partisan politician, and yet flew solo in the rarefied stratosphere while the rest of the political class never reached higher than the cumulus clouds far below.

I thought then and now that the essence of Mandela’s leadership was his special kind of grace, which raised the sights of our politics. Were there other such leaders? In my tribute back then, I suggested there were, but very few of them: "There are three categories of great political leaders.

"The first is the great and the bad: this includes Hitler and Stalin.

"The second is the great and the good: this includes Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. And then there is the third category, also of good, but of a leader born with a special kind of grace, who seems to transcend the politics of his age. This is a very small category, and in fact I can think of only two such men in this century: Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela."

Years later, I came across an essay by arguably the greatest political writer of the same century, George Orwell, an avowed enemy of cant and cliché. It was a reflection on Gandhi, published in January 1949, a year after the great Indian’s assassination. He wrote: "Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proven innocent, but the tests that have to be applied to them are not the same in all cases. In Gandhi’s case there is strong evidence in his favour…. For his whole life was a sort of pilgrimage in which every act was significant."

In Mandela’s case, one of the posthumous facts to have been confirmed, but much contested by his own flame-keepers while alive, was his membership of the Communist Party and its central command.

Between his final illness in July and his death last week, an energetic correspondence on this topic was published in the New York Review of Books. In the one corner was our acerbic local literary hero, Rian Malan, who had proffered evidence that Mandela was indeed a communist. This had been supported by the research of Stephen Ellis and former South African Communist Party (SACP) member Paul Trewhela. This in turn had been denounced by Bill Keller, who at the time of Mandela’s release had been New York Times bureau chief in Johannesburg.

Statements in recent days prove that, on this fact, Keller was wrong and his opponents were correct. Yet, on the larger question of what, if anything, this signifies, I think Keller called it right. On acknowledging that he "should not have been so categorical in saying that Mandela was not a communist", he noted: "Nelson Mandela was, at various times, a black nationalist and a nonracialist, an opponent of armed struggle, and a practitioner of armed struggle, a close partner of the SACP and in his presidency, a close partner of South Africa’s powerful capitalists…. But he was not a communist in the values he upheld, the politics he practised, the constitution he negotiated, or the presidency he held."

Another ace journalist, John Carlin, popularised the fact that Mandela’s favourite poem was Invictus by William Ernest Henley. But perhaps in terms of how he straddled the paradoxes he so singularly embodied and grafted them to causes greater than himself, we should reflect on the words of another poet, Walt Whitman: "Do I contradict myself? Very well I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes."

Mandela might not have resolved every contradiction his life and work embodied, and he never claimed to be a saint. In his essay on Gandhi, Orwell concluded: "But regarded simply as a politician, and compared to the other leading political figures of our time, how clean a smell he left behind."

Leon is the author of The Accidental Ambassador (Pan Macmillan). Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA


Wednesday, December 4, 2013

‘Stupid enough’ Eglin saw dangers of inequality

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03 Dec 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  BDlive

Colin Eglin joins the pantheon of political leaders of the modern, much contested, liberal tradition in South Africa, writes Tony Leon

COLIN Eglin, who died on Friday in Cape Town, joins the pantheon of political leaders of the modern, much contested, liberal tradition in South Africa. Jan Steytler, Zach de Beer, Harry Oppenheimer, Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, Harry Schwarz and Helen Suzman had all gone before him, and each of them held high political office on the opposition side of the fence, but none of them ever attained political power. Oppenheimer certainly exercised vast economic influence, and for critical years also funded the liberal opposition, but in political terms he was never in power.

Strangely enough, Eglin titled his memoir Crossing the Borders of Power, although they are a plainly written testament to the prodigious pursuit of principles and ideas in a mostly unforgiving political climate. It is not clear at which point, if ever, this highly intelligent, palpably decent public servant crossed the boundary separating the power of ideals from the ideals of power. Perhaps his short stint on the transitional executive council at Kempton Park, which briefly exercised authority in tandem with the departing National Party government between December 1993 and April 1994, provides a clue.

I always thought that Eglin’s political and personal friend, De Beer, who also succeeded him as party leader, came closest to nailing the liberal purpose in the body politic, when he dusted off the old and bleak aphorism of Prince William the Silent, "One need not hope in order to undertake, nor succeed in order to persevere." In an appropriately more unvarnished style, Eglin provided his party, during the two terms when he led it, with the caution that they were involved in "the politics of the long haul".

Eglin, a quantity surveyor by training and constitutional lawyer by inclination, held fast to the idea that the only bridge across the chasm of 350 years of racial division and conflict would be constructed of durable material forged in the furnace of direct political negotiations between hitherto warring parties: a nonracial, democratic constitution built by consensus and underpinned by strong checks against an overcentralising political authority. He once self-deprecatingly remarked at a Liberal International conference at Oxford in 1997, shortly after helping to midwife more or less just such an instrument, "if we were ‘stupid enough’ to share political power, we’d better be ‘stupid enough’ to make sure we share the economic wealth of the country as well."

He saw, earlier than many others, that the lurking danger for the new South Africa was a separation, again racial, between the holders of political authority and the possessors of the country’s economic patrimony. But he was not blind to the limitations and contradictions of present transformation, which he perceived to be a top-down reshuffling of elite wealth, not an inclusive and sustainable construction of a shared economy.

The roll call of white liberal leaders past indicates they were more successful, ironically, in glimpsing, and in some measure shaping, the future of the new South Africa than they were in constructing a political vehicle to enter it. This had much to do with their political provenance. With the exception of Van Zyl Slabbert, each of them had risen up the political ladder of the old United Party (UP), which they kicked away, first in 1959.

In fact, before 1994 every liberal political iteration was essentially involved in the rearrangement of political furniture from the disintegrating UP. It is quite striking, from today’s vastly changed vantage point, how very few voters were attracted from the majority ranks of the National Party to the Progressive Federal Party and its successors.

The grafting of an Afrikaans leader, variously Steytler, Van Zyl Slabbert and De Beer at the top of the party did not move Afrikaans votes any more than the bilingual, but English-speaking, Eglin could, or could not. Perhaps, with adaptation, there is a cautionary lesson here for the present opposition as it considers its future leadership. It was only the separation of Afrikaans voters from the levers of political power after 1994 that led to their migration, en masse, from the ranks of the National Party, which, shorn of power, was soon enough bereft of political purpose and existence.

Eglin lived a long and purposeful life. But he did not live long enough to see whether the political history he helped to shape on the white opposition side of the fence, might, as history so often does, repeat itself in the broad ranks of the black liberation movement — the African National Congress — an organisation he in some ways admired, but opposed.

Certainly some familiar stress fractures are in plain sight: the circular firing squad between warring alliance leaders, the looting of state assets and the confusion between personal and party interests on the one hand, and the national and constitutional interests on the other. But even a veteran like Eglin never hazarded a guess as to how long the disintegration would take, or whether some act of renewal would arrest the process.

Leon is the author of The Accidental Ambassador (Pan Macmillan). Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA