Prince Mashele

Of wise fools and old kings

2010-07-05 15:14

Those among us who do take a break from the unfolding spectacle of the FIFA Soccer World Cup to watch the drama of our politics cannot avoid the question: Has South Africa become a Great Stage of Fools?

William Shakespeare was a strange human being; he had a strange way of conveying wisdom. He would use a bizarre oxymoron to communicate simple truths about life. The roles he assigned to his characters often defied convention. Consider how he uses a Fool as a repository of wisdom in the tragedy of King Lear. Here is a conversation between a Fool and King Lear:

FOOL    If thou wert my fool, nuncle, I’d have thee beaten for being old before thy time.
LEAR    How’s that?

FOOL    Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.

In keeping with Shakespeare’s strangeness, a Fool tells a King that the King should not have become old before he was wise. How can a Fool tell a King that he is unwise? Should it not be the King rebuking a Fool for his foolishness?

While we may not have been blessed with Fools, South Africa certainly does not lack Kings who became old before they were wise.

Indeed, we would not in ordinary life expect a Police Commissioner to be friends with drug lords. Only in Shakespearean fiction would we have expected an old Commissioner to wear expensive suits bought by criminals.

If creative artists still exist, they must by now be busy setting a Great Stage of Fools for a beautiful Shakespearean play, depicting the infiltration of a Police Commissioner by a very smart criminal who manages to hoodwink an old Commissioner into criminal friendship.

When the play finally hits the cinema, few will think it imaginable that there is a country in the modern world where a Commissioner became old before he was wise. Has South Africa become a Great Stage of Fools?

As the real drama of political life continues to unfold, it is becoming ever clearer that there is need for greater collaboration between unwise choreographers and foolish political scientists. Had such a closer professional relationship been forged, we would have by now watched a riveting movie of leaders of a new political party that misled millions of South Africans into thinking that an alternative was being born. If we had Fools, these leaders would have been beaten for being old before their time.

Unfortunately, Shakespeare did not live to our day; he perhaps would have deemed it fit to compose a play depicting a war of toilets in a province run by an opposition party. If such a movie were to be shown in our cinemas, the scenes of plebeians smashing open toilets would indeed be unbelievable.

It is indeed regrettable that Shakespeare died long time ago; he perhaps would have produced a comical play of a presidency that is falling apart – in a country run by a surreal character who manufactures children like an efficient machine.

When we witness all this, we can only wish we had Fools to convey wisdom to our old Kings: Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise. When we see old people behave the way they do, we are tempted to wish for a country run by Fools, not by our old Kings.

When dramatic plays are over, we unfortunately return to the melancholy of heart-breaking politics, and wonder how has it come about for our politics to be emptied of dignity and decorum. Offices that were supposed to be a source of national pride have now become a source of collective embarrassment.

An African country that once promised to be different from the Great Stages of Fools around it, now painfully conjures up images of Daniel arap Moi, that imbecile who presided over intelligent Kenyans for many years.

When Moi was in charge, many people wondered silently: where are right-thinking Kenyans? Those who have observed that dark era will remember how embarrassed thinking Kenyans used to be whenever Moi opened his mouth to speak on behalf of Kenya.

South Africa is not Kenya, and we are indeed not embarrassed whenever leaders open their mouths to speak on our behalf, but there is clearly something wrong when a country begins to look like a Great Stage of Fools.

Where are our unwise choreographers to compose captivating movies of Commissioners who became old before they were wise? Where are our foolish political scientists to write books of wisdom about clowns who parade as leaders? Who, in the end, will salvage the collective image of South Africa, that has now become a painful joke?

If William Shakespeare were to rise from his tomb, one suspects he would compose a beautiful play of Fools, speaking wisdom to Kings. Is South Africa a Great Stage of Fools?

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

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