The English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley produced a memorable sonnet in 1818 entitled “Ozymandias of Egypt” in which the self-aggrandising arrogance of the Egyptian Pharoah Rameses II is artfully illustrated.
In the poem, a colossal statue of Rameses lies derelict in the middle of a vast desert, with the only thing still evident after three millennia being the “sneer of cold command” which the skilful sculptor captured on his face. The supposedly great achievements of Rameses’ rule, inevitably, have all turned to dust.
Shelley was not merely exposing the parasitic hubris of one of ancient history’s cruel slave-drivers, but also pointedly expressing his contempt for the new feudalism of the day, driven by the conquistadors of Western Europe – including his own “Great” Britain, which rationalised its imperial trophy-hunting by disguising its acquisitive greed under the cloak of a civilising mission.
In Shelley’s view (it seems to me), all political power is transitory. The only thing that transcends power (in the poem) is art, echoing the old adage that the pen is supposedly mightier than the sword. I guess this may be why a fair number of modern tyrannies have started the ball rolling by burning books. Knowledge, after all, is true power.
To be sure, politicians everywhere try to avoid competing in the field of free ideas. The reasons are pretty obvious. First, the political arena lends itself to a culture of conformity, without which parties would be unable to frame a coherent message. Second, sycophantic grovelling, praise-singing and the subordination of personal opinion to that of the Big Knob is necessary in a party environment in which the dispensing of patronage is informed by the extent to which a member may be regarded as a “team player”. Third, the sad fact is that the majority of those who choose to practise politics as a profession appear to have settled for just being, rather than doing.
This is probably why, when confronted with the fracturing of conformist thinking, the growth of critical and independent ideas and the disintegration of previously “disciplined” blocs of voters in our own country, a politician can see fit to refer sarcastically to “clever blacks” (intending it as a slur), as if the exercising of an informed or searching mind somehow merits the gratuitous slandering of the owner.
Aping the cue from the top, all around us we find evidence of a bankrupt anti-intellectualism, on the one hand, and on the other, a general contempt for the views of the common people of the country, even the belief that they are too thick to have views. Either way, this will sooner or later prove to be a dangerous delusion.
The widespread and deeply-rooted culture of impunity is premised on the belief that politicians are operating in a milieu that is beyond accountability.
I try not to dwell too much on the steady, perhaps irreversibly downward trajectory of once-noble political movements in South Africa, as the liberation dividend has been squandered, political capital has dried up and the dearth of stature and integrity in the top echelons of government is exposed time and again.
No less a personage than the ANC’s Secretary-General has now come out and said that the “minority races” on their recently-published list of candidates for parliament do not deserve to be there, since they do no work in “their communities”. How on earth is that supposed to recommend them for consideration by the voting public in May?
It is inconceivable that such a statement could have been uttered by any leader of the Movement prior to 2009, let alone the party’s top official.
With the ANC’s own research now suggesting that the loss of the country’s economic heartland is a real and imminent prospect, one wonders how long it will take for the penny to drop.