An unlikely star

2009-04-21 00:00

Just over a week ago, on a show called “Britain’s got talent”, a strange-looking, oddly dressed woman, square of stature, with wild black hair and unmanaged eyebrows was being interviewed before giving her performance. She comes from a tiny village called Blackburn in West Lothian, Scotland, is unemployed, she explained, but still looking. She has a cat called Pebbles and she is unmarried. In fact, she went on to elaborate, she has never been kissed! “Shame!” she said. “But that’s not an advert.”

She marched onto centre stage carrying the microphone like it was a club. Simon Cowell addressed her rather patronisingly: “Alright, what’s your name, darling?” She told him — Susan Boyle. Where was she from? She told him. “A big town?” he asked sarcastically. She got confused in her answer — it was a sort of collection of ... she eventually found the word, villages. How old is she? “I am 47,” she said, and started gyrating her hips, sending the crowd into paroxysms of derision and laughter. Cowell’s eyes rolled. The other judges looked vaguely tolerant, but unimpressed.

Her dream, she explained, was to be a professional singer, like Elaine Page. Laughter from the audience. More eye rolling and snooty patronising from the panel of judges. The stage was set for everyone to have a good laugh at her expense.

Then she opened her mouth and the sound which came out was so extraordinary, so pure and exhilarating that within six notes, the audience spontaneously rose to its feet and cheered. And they didn’t stop until well beyond the last note of the song. The judges were not only silenced, they were completely overwhelmed. Their cynicism lay in tatters, as they struggled to find words to describe their surprise.

Since then, some 30 million people around the globe have seen the performance on YouTube. Those I have sent it to have had much the same response as I did — tears of joy. You can see it for yourself, if you haven’t already, at

Someone in my family, who, like all of us, is thinking about the elections, asked me a very interesting question. He asked whether I thought Jacob Zuma is “a bit like Ronald Reagan”. I understood immediately what he was getting at. Reagan was, undoubtedly, one of the United States’s most popular presidents. To me, however, he was an idiot. More than that, he was a very dangerous idiot. I found his style repugnant, his Brylcreemed hair too cheesy for words, his speeches rambling, incoherent and unmemorable, and his views unbearable. Nevertheless, he was immensely popular, and it would be silly for me not to recognise that. I was completely shocked to see how at his death, as his coffin was schlepped from one city to the next, how deeply the American public appeared to be moved by his death. Were all Americans idiots, I wondered, to miss a clot like that?

Now, by way of comparison, I don’t think Zuma is an idiot. He is certainly not an intellectual, but neither is he an idiot. In fact, I think we might all agree, he has made some intellectuals around him look pretty idiotic themselves. But his intellect is not what makes him appealing to the masses of ordinary people in this country. With that, he shares a lot with Reagan. And in the light of the fact that he is virtually certain to become president after voting day, I want to say we need to give him a chance to sing, before we let our cynicism and prejudices ride roughshod over our reason. What if Zuma proves to have more in common with Boyle than with Reagan? The reasonable and unprejudiced person should at least allow for that possibility and judge him on what he manages to produce on the stage of government.

Yes, he is likely to be our next president. That is what our reality, as South Africans is going to be. The question which follows that realisation is this: what do we then make of that reality? The issue cannot be what the singer looks like, or what his or her history has been. The issue is, what is the quality of the music which he or she produces?

• Michael Worsnip is director: 2010 World Cup Unit, Western Cape Province, Department of Cultural Affairs and Sport. He writes in his personal capacity.

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