Headed for a Pyrrhic Victory?

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Nkandla: The Presidential Homestead which is the focus of our national elections, to the detriment of the African National Congress


One of the ‘nice’ things about writing is the research one gets to do for each piece. Take for instance, the phrase, ‘to turn a blind eye’, would you believe that it originates from a real-life story of a general at war? The said general is handed a telescope to watch his troops engaged in a battle. He proceeds to place the telescope on the one eye blinded in past wars, and obviously misses the fact that his troops are losing the war badly, but he announces that ‘there is no problem’. In other words he turned a blind eye to a problem that was there for all to see. Amusing, don’t you think? Didn’t know any of this till last week.

This got me thinking. In light of our national elections happening exactly a month from today, which other phrase can one use to describe our nation’s pulse right now, what’s is the governing party doing? Are they turning a blind eye to problems or are they perhaps doing what ostriches supposedly do: “bury their heads in the sand”. Having been inspired by suddenly knowing the origins of “turning the blind eye”, I immediately set to work researching the origins of “to bury your head in the sand”. Ok ok, so I Googled it, big deal, it’s still research.

It turns out that the phrase “to bury your head in the sand”(refusing to face a problem) is based on a myth perpetuated by an ancient Roman writer who observed that Ostriches “hide their heads in the bushes”. I have not studied ostrich behavior but Google further assures me that ostriches do not hide their heads in the bush nor in the sand. The only exception is when they feeding that they lower their heads to access food, but then again which bird doesn’t lower its head to reach its food?.

What does this have to do with our May 7 date with destiny, an election marking exactly 20 years since the dawn of democracy? Everything. This election should have been about measuring the strides our young democracy has made since 1994. The question should be whether we are moving at the right pace in the fight against poverty? Are we still on course to eliminate it? Have our democratic structures like the Constitutional Court stood the test of time? In other words, we should be taking stock.

But here we are, 30 days from the election and all we are hearing over and over again is one swearword. Nkandla. Other variations of the word include the word “Nkandlagate”, President’s compound and “Homestead”. I challenge you to Google it and you will discover it means corruption, maladministration and a whole host of other negative things.

How did we move the spotlight from issues like unemployment, education, poor service delivery, housing backlog, police reforms, human rights abuses, worker’s rights and economic growth to focus this high-powered laser beam of national debate on one man’s home(homestead, compound, dwelling…you pick)?

The answer is we “turned a blind eye” to a festering wound. The leadership of the ruling party chose to “bury their heads in the sand” when confronted with a problem. No, not like ostriches, because we have established that ostriches do not do that. But like “refusing to face the problem” which is what the phrase means.

There is always a danger when people think with their hearts when they are supposed to think with their heads. In 2005 when the current president was removed from his post as the then deputy president for having an “obviously corrupt” relationship with convicted fraudster Schabir Schaik, most of us felt affronted. We felt this humble servant of the people was being victimized and humiliated because the then president was elitist and not a man of the people. We sympathized with the victim, thinking with our hearts, and damn, did he pull those heartstrings?

Had we used our heads instead we would have thanked the learned President Mbeki for getting rid of a cancer in its early stages. We could have further used our heads to reason that the learned President Mbeki could be replaced by someone else who could take the people into his/her confidence as they went about ruling our country. But no, we went with our hearts, forgave an obviously flawed leader at own expense. How do you use your head when you’ve buried it in the sand?

I mean, the man tried to warn us, he was divisive without even trying, the consequences of which we are still feeling today. You were either in his camp or the enemy. In the ruling party. In its youth league. In the workers unions. In the ruling of the provinces. He couldn’t keep out of court, either as a defendant or suing. He had questionable morals, the result of which is a child out of wedlock. Yet our hearts said, he is a victim, we must support him. We dug the sand deeper to keep our heads buried.

The brain drain that followed the ousting of President Mbeki gave us further warnings that the cancer was growing, starving us of principled leaders who were not prepared to serve under an obviously flawed leader.

Whilst I use the collective noun “We” to include everyone in the election of a leader who went on to turn a blind eye when a R20m security project at his home ballooned to R250m, blame needs to be put squarely on the leadership that surrounds the President and continues to enable him to keep up the pretenses that everything is fine.

Edmund Burke is credited with having said that “Evil is enabled when men of good conscience choose to keep silent”. In our case, men of good conscience like Cyril Ramaphosa and the departing Trevor Manuel have been cowed into silence from the obvious fear of being seen to divide the movement, when the movement has long been divided by the actions of the faction that has sought to defend evil at all costs. Yes, it’s evil to take money intended for poverty alleviation projects and divert it to the homestead of a president “who never asked for it” as he reminded us last week.

And thus Nkandla took centre stage. And having missed the growth of the cancer whilst it was still growing into the monster that it is now, the upcoming election has forced the leadership who had previously buried their heads in the sand to surface and defend the President at all costs. In the mistaken belief or assertion that an attack on the President is an attack on the African National Congress. They could not be more wrong. People still love the movement with all their hearts and most have an emotional attachment to it for what its history stands for.

What people hate is having to be seen to endorse the actions of a leader who not only turns a blind eye, but chooses to refuse to see. “There are none so blind as those who will not see”. In his refusal, he has spawned a network of leaders of good conscience who are forced to defend evil.

Because the majority still loves the ANC, they will return them to power. Victory is certain. But as I put those words down, Victory is Certain, another phrase comes to mind, one I learnt many years ago watching a movie, “Lean on Me” if I’m not mistaken: Pyrrhic Victory.

Although I know its meaning, in keeping with my ‘research’ spirit(read Google), I researched it origins and found that “The phrase Pyrrhic victory is named after Greek King Pyrrhus of Epirus, whose army suffered irreplaceable casualties in defeating the Romans at Heraclea in 280 BC and Asculum in 279 BC during the Pyrrhic War”.

In other words, a Pyrrhic victory is a “hollow” victory, a victory that’s not worth it. And I asked myself: When leaders of good conscience are compromised in defence of one man, when a historic movement closes ranks behind a hugely flawed leader, are we not headed for a Pyrrhic Victory? Are we going to bury our heads in the sand and turn a blind eye until a historic movement is obliterated? One of my favourite songs is Bob Marley’s “Time will Tell”. Only time will answer these questions.


One response

  1. I wondered why we humans are so attracted to anniversaries. Why do we celebrate years, decades, quarters? What is it about calendars? Why not celebrate using different markers? Like generations instead of decades, or actual moons instead of months, or milestone events?

    You point out the importance of calendars: anniversaries are commonly agreed-upon times when our energy combines to take stock. These can be powerful moments. So, when those who want to be in power feel threatened, they dissipate the energy with nonsensical issues. I commend you for seeing past the noise, and keeping your eye on the targets “unemployment, education, poor service delivery, housing backlog, police reforms, human rights abuses, worker’s rights and economic growth.”

    After you wrote about the ostriches not burying their heads in the sand, and the people who are, I appreciated your lines, “How do you use your head when you’ve buried it in the sand?” and then “We dug the sand deeper to keep our heads buried,” and more.

    I breathe a sigh of relief when I read words like, “blame needs to be put squarely on the leadership that surrounds the President and continues to enable him.” How did people get the idea that any leader can act independently?

    I wish your country well as the elections draw closer. I hope you can help people to keep their seeing eyes above ground and focused on the targets.


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