Prince Mashele

Of intellect and political vision

2010-10-18 12:25

f it is true that South Africa is a nation in the making, there must therefore be a great deal to learn from others. Although the hand of contemporary politics appears to have succeeded in blemishing the image of the United States of America (USA) the making of the USA remains pregnant with important lessons for South Africa’s nation-formation project.

Indeed, we cannot avoid the question: What is there for today’s South Africa to learn from the making of America - a process that took concrete shape in the late 18th century?

History books are correct in recording the USA as the first case of a modern state that gave practical effect to the idea of republicanism. When she was declared as an independent state in 1776, the rest of the world was still languishing under the dictatorship of all sorts of kingdoms. Before then, the concept “citizen” - with its republican connotations - existed only in the realm of theory. The overwhelming majority of the world’s population were still content to be called “subjects”.

It is not from the blood that was shed but from the ideas that were generated in the making of America that South Africans should seek to learn.

As a modern republican state, America first existed quite vividly in the mind of the great intellectual Thomas Paine. In his famous 1775 pamphlet, entitled Common Sense, Paine articulated the principles and institutional form of the new American state that was struggling to be born. Indeed, it was Thomas Paine who coined the name “United States of America”.

Sharp intellect and clear political vision

Politics being the superstructure, Paine’s ideas could only be given practical expression by politicians. Fortunately, America then was blessed with a visionary politician who had the capacity to appreciate great ideas, George Washington. It was through Washington that Paine got invited to play the prominent role he played in the drafting of the first constitution of the new nation-state, which he himself had named the “United States of America”.

In Thomas Paine and George Washington, we observe a powerful combination of an intellectual and a politician, working to design and to give birth to a modern republican state that would later stand out among the most enduring and prosperous of democracies. Thus was the USA born of an intercourse between sharp intellect (of Paine) and clear political vision (of Washington).

Having contributed to the making of America, the mind of Thomas Paine was again triggered into restlessness by the tumultuous events of 1789 in France. In dedicating Part II of his famous Rights of Man this is what Paine wrote to the French revolutionary M. De Lafayette:

When the American revolution was established, I felt a disposition to sit serenely down and enjoy the calm. It did not appear to me that any object could afterwards arise great enough to make me quit tranquillity, and feel as I had felt before. But when principle, and not place, is the energetic cause of action, a man, I find, is everywhere the same. (9 February 1792)

Indeed, Thomas Paine also participated in the drafting of the first constitution of post-revolution France. And for this role, he had the personal honour of being the enviable messenger who was given the key to the fallen Bastille to hand over to George Washington as a gift.

The most ungifted

Again, we see in the making of post-revolution France intellect being combined with political vision to construct a modern nation-state. Later, this was made plainer when Napoleon claimed proudly to sleep with a copy of Paine’s Rights of Man under his pillow. Indeed, we find in history few more interesting confessions by a politician regarding the power of ideas than Napoleon’s.

Two-hundred and thirty-four years after America’s independence - produced by the historic combination of intellectual (represented by Thomas Paine) and political vision (embodied in George Washington) - South Africa finds herself at a point where her making does not seem to benefit from a combination between sharp intellect and clear political vision. This is the sage lesson we are perhaps yet to learn.

When we observe public affairs, we are not left with the impression of a government in pursuit of well-articulated objective. Beyond hazy generalities, nothing convinces us that, as a nation, we are being led into a country greater than the one we live in.

If a question were to arise as to who are the Thomas Paines behind the making of South Africa today, one remains unsure of the clarity of the answer thereto. The people who occupy the highest office in our land include the most ungifted among us. Yet they are the very people who, as Paine and Washington did in America, are supposed to drive the making of modern South Africa.

As ordinary citizens, how are we to be inspired by the daily news of a government characterised by scandals and catfights. If it is not a corruption scandal, it is this or the other Director General being fired or fighting his or her minister. Worst, fights among senior officials started right in the Union Buildings, an office which ought to be a symbol of national honour. Hardly a year into the new administration, we came to learn about terrible catfights in the office that was supposed to project the face of integrity. Alas, we now find ourselves in a situation where only spin doctors and fools believe that the highest office in the land still possesses a modicum of dignity.

A deep sense of fatalism

Due to the prevailing poverty of ideas and the glaring lack of political leadership, the phrase “auto-piloting” seems apposite to describe the state of politics in South Africa today. All this happens when the magnitude of our problems calls for nothing less than Thomas Paine’s intellect and George Washington’s political vision. 

The tragedy is that our political system is not so designed as to protect us from the leadership travesty under which our nation currently languishes. We observe all this with a deep sense of fatalism, for we all know that a replay of the current episode is not at all impossible.

When a nation is not healthy, right-thinking people can feel it. That ours is an unhealthy nation is a reality that only eludes self-blinded denialists. Indeed, those who do not want to see must not be forced to see. But those who think seriously of the potential that South Africa has must pause to ask: What can we learn from Thomas Paine and George Washington, especially in times of intellectual and leadership crises? 

- Prince Mashele is Executive Director of the Centre for Politics and Research ( and a member of the Midrand Group

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