In 1904, Mark Twain wrote in his notebook, “In the beginning of a change the patriot is a scarce man, and brave, and hated and scorned. When his cause succeeds, the timid join him, for then it costs nothing to be a patriot.”
In conversations around braai fires across provinces and cultures, a common prescription for the social and economic ills of contemporary South Africa is often repeated. The country is in dire need of strong leaders providing principled guidance in these troubled, uncertain times.
One, however, always needs to keep in mind that leaders come in many different forms, depending on the requirements of the context. Many seem to hold on to the misconception that leaders simply appear as required when the time is right, as is a common theme in myths and legends. However, in the real world, history has shown that in most cases every great leader started off as a normal, flesh and blood citizen. Indeed, South Africa is in desperate need of good leaders, but on a more fundamental level, what South Africa is truly crying out for are more individuals of strong and impeccable character and integrity on all levels of society.
A key driver behind the scarcity of such influential figures is the hyper-individualised worldview that many of our countrymen have adopted. Droves of South Africans have opted out of the society, communities and political system around them, retreating into increasingly-isolated and disconnected bubbles. Therefore, South Africa needs individuals who are prepared to work towards something much greater than themselves.
People who are willing to sacrifice personal gain for doing what is right for their country, community and their children’s future. We need more people who are willing to face the mockery, name-calling, smear pieces and lies propagated by their detractors by standing up for the truth, honesty, duty and justice. South Africa is short of people who are prepared to put long-term sustainability above short-term gratification and gain, as well as country before political party. An ancient Greek proverb goes, “Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”
This sentiment is found in the popular South African folktale of Racheltjie de Beer.
While looking for a lost calf in an icy storm, Racheltjie and her little brother lost their way. As the gravity of the situation dawned on her, the young girl started hollowing out an nearby anthill, inside which her brother could fit. The cold remained unbearable for her brother, and in a last ditch effort of desperate heroism, Racheltjie offered up all her remaining clothes to cover her brother and further shielded the anthill entrance with her little body exposed to the elements. As the dawn broke and the storm cleared, a search party came across the girl’s tiny frozen body, and a crying boy lucky to be alive. Instead of both of them freezing to death, Racheltjie possessed the courage and maturity of spirit to willingly sacrifice her own life in order to save her brother’s.
Within every person resides the potential to be an individual of sound character and principled integrity. The heavy toll to achieve that admirable goal, however, is the reason why this potential is scarcely realised. The cruel costs to those who venture to do so manifest in the scathing, relentless and often bitterly smug attacks on them from the powerful as well as the spineless.
While many desire the glory and fame that comes with being a brave leader or hero, very few are willing to face the immense challenges and risks that come with standing up in public for your principles and for a cause greater than one self. Countless people who are able to think for themselves have found that siding with the counterculture against the ideas of the reigning zeitgeist is a perilous endeavour, with the establishment’s guard dogs, spin doctors and ‘jackbootlickers’ being constantly at the ready to defend the hands that feed them.
Furthermore, many crave the fame and adoration true patriots eventually earn, but instead of emulating the principles of these brave few, they choose to rather stand back. Some even belittle and mock their achievements and slander their characters. They choose the easy option of criticizing and breaking down, rather than rolling up their sleeves and getting involved in the building process. As they say in the classics, misery loves company.
Many in leadership positions often preach that the end justifies the means. Necessary evils should be tolerated, some say, in order to reach what they, under the façade of patriotism, frame as in the best interest of the people. However, as Aldous Huxley aptly pointed out, “The end cannot justify the means, for the simple and obvious reason that the means employed determine the nature of the ends produced.” Therefore, the path towards just ends pursued by true patriots needs to be paved with fair, well-reasoned, and just means. Present wrongs can never right the wrongs of the past, for the plain and simple reason that the present has a nasty and consistent habit of turning into the past. In that manner a new generation of disadvantaged people is created. Why dig a pothole to fill another?
Let us not dwell on idealism or outsource our responsibilities by waiting for those smarter, stronger or better-spoken than us to step up and solve our problems. Anyone who has ever gone camping has encountered the situation where a vital element such as tent pegs is forgotten, and a finger-pointing, “I thought you were going to bring it!” squabble ensues. Let us rather stop blaming each other or conspiratorial forces from within or without, and step up to the plate by starting to do something constructive towards solving the problems we face. We should not only celebrate and praise those principled patriots among us who step into the arena and tackle the bull by the horns, but also strive to emulate them ourselves by doing whatever we can to leave our communities and country in a better condition than we found them.