Friday, November 12, 2004

We all want to change the world 

Another expat, in this case an Irishman, pointed out the other day just how long the pecking order that had evolved in the Irish civil war lasted for. His reckoning was for 40 or 50 years. He cited Eamon de Valera, who was first imprisoned during the Easter uprising of 1916, sentenced to death, then released in 1917, imprisoned a couple more times, and finally became Taoiseach, and then president from 1959 until 1973. De Valera makes an interesting comparison with Mandela, who spent far longer in prison, so was less able to influence his path towards becoming the head of his country.

It will be interesting to see just how long “struggle credentials” count for something in South Africa. For the foreseeable future, there is a pseudo aristocracy of those who did their bit. There sometimes emerges a rivalry amongst the accredited between those who stayed to fight, and those who orchestrated the revolution from exile. One group risked their lives but stayed at home, while the other, like the current president Thabo Mbeki, left their families behind to plan the nation’s future from abroad. At the moment, the political and black business elite is mostly drawn from these pools. Perhaps that is because the qualities that create revolutionaries are similar to those that create businessmen. Except for communists maybe.

Both of these are certainly better options that the English class system, in that they are at least earned rather than inherited. If South Africa gets to the point where it is a true meritocracy in a generation or so, then it will have achieved it a lot faster than the Poms did. The closest equivalent to Lords and Ladies over here is the hierarchy within tribes, which counts for far less in the cities than it does in the rural areas. Come to think of it, that is probably the case in England too.

To explore the aristocracy metaphor further seems appropriate in the light of all the Arafat obituaries appearing at the moment. Revolutionaries have never been so popular, so the terrorist as aristocrat is an interesting topic. In England, most Lords and Ladies acquired the title by being born from the right womb. Similarly in South Africa, there are some surnames that could get you a long way even without nepotism: Mandela, Sisulu, Mbeki. The scions of the great are accorded a certain amount of respect, as are those of noble birth in England, but there is still a requirement to prove yourself on your own merits, as the son of Govan Mbeki has done.

The other obvious parallel is an awarded title that is hereditary, like a baronetcy. Mark Thatcher, for example, is Sir Mark only because his father earned the title, and he inherited it as the first born male – he has done little to earn it. The closest thing in South African society is probably Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, ex wife of Nelson, who would probably not be in the public position she is in today if it were not for her association with the great man. To the credit of both societies, Mark and Winnie are regarded as something of an embarrassment by many people.

My fervent hope is that South Africa never institutes some kind of honours system. That would be taking it too far.

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