The Sunday News
Cetshwayo Zindabazezwe Mabhena
IN the field of politics such valued human attributes as innocence and trust can be costly. Naiveté as a form of innocence and simplicity that approaches silliness can even be deadly.
It is in the arena of politics that such negative human habits as suspicion and distrust become virtues. Politics is not only naturally conflictual and antagonising but it has over the centuries established itself as a treacherous and thankless occupation where angels get crucified and devils are promoted.
After carefully observing politics and the habits of men and women in politics, a founding father and the fourth president of the United States of America, James Madison (1809 to 1817) correctly noted that “if men were angels no government would be necessary.” The scoundrels that men and women tend to be when it comes to seeking, finding and keeping power have necessitated the creation of systems, structures and institutions that restrain the excesses of leaders and their followers. The world over, political advisors and counsellors serve as sober guides for kings, presidents, prime ministers, queens and other leaders.
It was in reference to leaders that do not take sober advice that the wise Nigerian elders coined the proverb: “A fly that does not listen to advice follows the corpse to the grave,” meaning that leaders, however, great, that ignore wise counsel end up in peril. Unfortunately leaders do not perish alone but with their people, and so must they be watched.
There is, perhaps, something maddening about power that makes powerful people vulnerable to error and excesses, and that makes them constantly need sober advice and strong restraints. Power needs bridles or else it naturally degenerates to tyranny, domination and evil.
Human nature and Power
One of Niccolo Machiavelli’s most durable observations is that “man is either good or bad but for the purposes of politics must be considered bad.” Human beings can be good and can also be terrible and must be watched. Criminal justice holds that individuals must be treated as good and innocent until proven guilty but, I argue, political wisdom must hold that in politics people, especially politicians and their followers, must be handled as guilty and up no good until they prove otherwise. What Giorgio Agamben has called the “courage of hopelessness” is the courage to see, in politics, all light at the end of the tunnel not as hope of coming power and glory but an approaching train that is coming to crash on our poor souls. Human nature is too fragile and vulnerable nature, it seems. And once this pathetic nature is combined with power its fragilities and vulnerabilities become more dangerous. Not only dangerous for its violence but its sheer insanity.
As I write the large world must be wondering why an entire President of an African country took advantage of the National May Day Ceremony of his country to give his 12-year-old daughter a medal for “good behaviour at home.”
In a country that is enduring instability where does a leader find the sense of humour to make a national issue out of the imagined heroism of his toddling daughter.
Powerful people, especially political leaders, very easily get isolated and insulated from reality.
Africa should not be laughing with the world but crying at the world that a leader would dabble in such obscenity when the continent burns. Opportunistic flatterers and enterprising sycophants that surround men and women of power create a false world around them, a paradisal world that has nothing to do with reality and the actualities of life in this difficult world.
Human nature is vulnerable to flattery and hungry for worship. Very easily, political leaders find themselves sold and bought to the world of make-believe that choirs of praise singers and flatterers build around them. Few politicians resist the sound of clapping hands, whistles and ululations that crowds of flatterers and sycophants are always ready to issue at every step and sound that a leader makes, however, mundane.
Political philosophers and theorists have concentrated on bad leadership and bad leaders and forgotten the malady of bad followers that drive leaders to their peril and the peril of their people.
The Goodness of Man
One of my favourite philosophers of the ancient West, Jean-Jacques Rousseau made famous the notion of the natural goodness of man. He was sure that “man is naturally good, and anything that is not natural has corrupted us from this natural state.”
Rousseau held the romantic belief that man is born free and good, and is only corrupted by an evil world. I think the world is a free and good place that is corrupted by evil man. Rousseau, a well-meaning soul and self-taught philosopher mistook his own personal goodness and innocence for the goodness and innocence of all men and women. Some of the world’s most venal leaders and rulers were otherwise jolly good fellows that were deprived of sober advice by brave friends and followers because they were assumed to be naturally good.
Good men and women, in love or fear, keep their advice to themselves while scoundrels among flatterers and self-serving sycophants mislead leaders.
One of the possible reasons why in Zulu culture the king is called “umntwana,” meaning a child, is partly that the more powerful people become the more childish and vulnerable they can be, and need the hand-holding of courageous wise elders and working systems, institutions and structures that restrain them.
Restraints and Power
That “all that makes existence valuable to anyone depends on the enforcement of restraints upon the actions of other people” is a deep aphorism that John Stuart Mill made in his seminal treatise, On Liberty. The freedom and happiness of human beings depends on the restraints that are put to the excesses and indeed insanities of other people, especially political leaders whose words and deeds affect the lives, realities and futures of masses.
Every community, country and continent needs working institutions, systems and structures that hold the powerful under check and control and forbid excesses and insanities of the great ones.
Basically all heroes, saints and messiahs, wherever they are found, need to be protected from themselves and saved from their own excesses and insanities.
In politics as in religion, there can be no reliance on the natural goodness of man; man must be treated as if he was born a sinner. The need for restraints on excesses and insanities of power demands that individuals and populations get involved with and in politics and build systems, institutions and structures that keep power under check.
I have noted it before that, as much as war is said to be too serious a matter to be left to soldiers, commanders and generals, politics is too grave a vocation to be left to political leaders and their followers; and that should be the very beginning of political wisdom.
Political power is not only corrupting but also truly maddening to fragile and vulnerable human nature; no politician can be left to the natural goodness of man but should always be restrained.
-Cetshwayo Zindabazezwe Mabhena writes from Gezina, in Pretoria, South Africa: [email protected]