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Rosemund Handler

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

From the mouths of the ancients

In the time of Alexander the Great, anyone who was not a member of a small group of tribes on the tip of the Aegean peninsula was a barbarian and of inferior stock, worthy only to be a slave. That included Macedonians such as Alexander.

Among Athenians, only one who owned land and was born of an Athenian father and mother could be considered a citizen. Even craftsmen and entrepreneurs were considered inferior, unworthy of citizenship.

After the wars, Alexander made a famous speech to the Greeks, which seems more relevant today than ever before. He said: “I wish all of you, now that the wars are coming to an end, to live happily in peace. All mortals from now on shall live like one people, united and peacefully working towards a common prosperity. You should regard the whole world as your country – a country where the best govern, with common laws and no racial distinctions. I do not separate people, as many narrow-minded others do, into Greeks and barbarians.

“I’m not interested in the origin or race of citizens. I distinguish them only on the basis of their virtue. For me, each good foreigner is a Greek, and each bad Greek is a barbarian. If ever there appear differences among you, you must not resolve them by taking to arms; you should resolve them in peace. If need be, I shall act as your negotiator. You must not think of God as an authoritarian ruler, but you should consider Him as common father, so that your conduct will resemble the uniform behaviour of brothers who belong to the same family. For my part, I consider all – whether they be white or black – equal, and I would like you to be not only the subjects of my commonwealth, but also participants and partners. Within my powers, I shall endeavour to fulfil all my promises. You should regard the oath we have taken tonight as a symbol of love.”

Alexander’s dream of peace embraced all his people, including the foreigners in their midst. As a Macedonian and foreigner himself, he waged war and experienced hatred and prejudice; ultimately, he learned compassion. Today, for far too many people, Alexander’s vision is still only that: a dream of what mankind could achieve if war, power-mongering and greed were abandoned in favour of the upliftment of society and compassion for one’s fellow man.

If our leaders in this country had done half as much as Alexander, if they would say what they mean and execute what they promise, South Africa would be a different country. Instead they make war on their own people by stealing from them daily, constructing a web of hypocrisy and lies that continues to ignore the fundamental rights of every South African: access to food and clean water, a decent education with full literacy, jobs and housing.

But when elections loom, these leaders wave a magic wand. This wand erases past abuse and paints a future for no other purpose than to inspire voters to come out in droves in support of them.

The people’s response should be exactly the opposite. The future under the present ANC government will look just as it does right now. No change. There is no magic wand, and if people want change in their lives, they need to begin with themselves. They need to withdraw their support in droves. And if they cannot imagine voting for a party other than the ANC, perhaps their best option is not to vote at all.

Imagine the kind of land we would share if Nkandla was given back to the people it belongs to, if every cent stolen by corruption was sunk into housing and amenities and education and training. Imagine a land with respect for our fellow South Africans and their suffering; imagine a land that is humane to the foreigners in our midst – many of whom are not drug lords but struggling desperately to make lives for themselves in harsh circumstances.

As is the case throughout history, corruption begins at the top and trickles down to the least of us, the most deprived, so that when horrified questions are asked about heinous crimes that take place, among them the rape and murder of babies and children, one should stop asking and do the simple detective work: such barbarism exists because many who commit such deeds have had no scaffolding of family and community, and little or no government support. They have been outcast and trodden on, given nothing but empty promises. In such arid ground evil is the only thing that grows: how else to vent hopelessness and helplessness but on those who are equally helpless, unable to comprehend or to fight back?

These days, when people’s eyes skim the headlines detailing the latest theft by government, the next catastrophe, they shake their heads and go about their business. This is because endless headlines of crime and abuse by those who should know better do not breed compassion, but its opposite: desensitisation.

How much worse must be the desensitisation and disconnection of those who have never known what it is to be nurtured, who have never had the opportunity to provide properly for their families or to experience feelings of pride and dignity?

It is well past time for South Africans to turn away from old ways and old days, and to accept responsibility for the changes we must demand from ourselves in order to expect these changes to take root in our country. A good place to start would be to adopt Alexander’s concept of nationhood: that all South Africans are brothers and sisters, belonging to the same family. We must commit ourselves to eradicating the rot and the strife, dump our egos on the trash heap where they belong, and dedicate our joint efforts to building a future for that family.

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