My recent reimmersion into the murky waters of SA politics during the negotiation for the new and very large government of national unity was a reminder of why I quit political leadership in 2007.

I have renewed admiration for those who toil at the political grindstone but, politics like acting (and former British prime minister David Cameron quipped “politics is show business for ugly people”) hinges a lot around timing. And knowing when to go is an under appreciated art form in both realms.

One of the light bulb moments I had back in July 2006 as I weighed the disadvantages of continuing as party leader after 13 years at the helm was an article I chanced upon in the London Daily Telegraph.

One paragraph read:

It is a necessary fact of political biology that we never know when our time is up. Long before it is obvious that we are goners, we continue to believe it is ‘our duty’ to hang on, with cuticle-wrenching tenacity to the privileges of our post. We kid ourselves that we must stay because ‘we would be letting people down’ or that there is ‘a job to be finished’. In reality, we are just terrified of the comedown…All politicians are masters of the art of procrastination, but there is no day they find easier to postpone than the day of their own resignation.

The author of that polemic was one Boris Johnson, at the time editor of The Spectator, ruminating on the reasons why Tony Blair was so reluctant to exit Downing Street.

Before it was published, I had met a few times with Johnson, who was warmly supportive of our opposition efforts here and even invited me to attend one of his freewheeling, semi-chaotic editorial conferences at the magazine, which he edited alongside being a backbench Tory MP.

It seemed a very distant prospect then that Johnson would emerge as Conservative leader and prime minister in the chaos after Brexit in 2019. But when his freewheeling and rules-busting ways forced his exit from office in September 2022, he too attempted to cling to office “with cuticle wrenching tenacity”.

After the far more ill-starred and extraordinary brief – the shortest in history – seven-week rule of his successor Liz Truss, Johnson again plotted a comeback. He abandoned it when the numbers didn’t stack up, and the poisoned chalice, along with a crashed economy, passed to Rishi Sunak.

Sunak’s weak hand 

Sunak, the odds-on favourite to be buried under a Labour landslide on Thursday, inherited a weak hand which he played poorly. But the great “whirly gig of time” a la Shakespeare, after 14 unbroken years of Tory rule would have wrong-footed even a sure-footed operator like Tony Blair, which Sunak – whatever his other attributes – is not.

Sunak wants British voters to remember the things he got right, notably that he is a better prime minister and more economically literate than his predecessor Truss. But as The Economist waspishly observed, “if praise came any fainter, it would be invisible”.

One feature of Boris Johnson’s back story which goes back a lot further than the Brexit referendum which propelled him to the premiership was his turbulent childhood – in a very dysfunctional family – when as a small boy he announced that he wished to be “world king”.

This leads to an interesting book published  by another figure from British politics of a previous age, Dr David Owen.

Shortly after Owen’s removal as Labour foreign secretary via the consequential 1979 election, which ushered Margaret Thatcher into power, our academic freedom committee at Wits University invited Owen, then a fierce critic of apartheid and seen as a possible future prime minister,  to the campus in Braamfontein, where he delivered a stirring lecture.

Owen’s burning ambition crashed out when he quit Labour two years after his Wits visit, but his mental acuity did not.

In 2008, many years after he left frontline politics Owen, who was a trained neurology and psychiatric registrar before his entry into parliament, published a study he entitled “Hubris Syndrome”.

Puffed up

Hubris though not a medical term is associated with powerful figures, stretching back to ancient Greece in which a powerful figure “puffed up with overweening pride and self-confidence, treat others with insolence and contempt”.

According to Owen’s diagnosis, hubris syndrome is “inextricably linked with power”. In power, politicians who display it show several morbid (for political life) symptoms. These include: a narcissistic propensity to see the world as “an arena where they can seek power and glory rather than as a place with problems that need approaching in a pragmatic and non-self-referential manner”.

Owen distilled a key external factor in the hubris syndrome, namely holding substantial power, minimal constraint on the leader holding such personal authority, and the length of time they stay in power.

Obviously, dictators, from Vladimir Putin in Russia to Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khameni, tick this box with baleful consequences for the world beyond their borders.

But as we now see in plain sight, the democratic world is hardly immune from bearers of this syndrome.

Anyone who watched the two contenders for the highest office in the free world, the US presidency, in the CNN debate last Thursday between Joe Biden and Donald Trump would have gasped at the awfulness of the choice and the full display of hubris syndrome in technicolour glory.

Car crash performance 

Biden’s car crash performance – akin to a doddery and enfeebled grandfather of failing mental acuity, led one of his previous supporters, Maureen Dowd, to write in the New York Times: “He’s being selfish. He’s putting himself ahead of the country. He’s surrounded by opportunistic enablers. He’s created a reality distortion field where we are told not to believe what we’ve plainly seen. His hubris is infuriating. He says he is doing this for us, but he’s really doing it for himself.” The newspaper, in an editorial, called on Biden to quit the race.

Apparently beside Biden himself his wife, Dr Jill Biden, is the key decider on the president’s determination to stay in office. Though she is painted by some Democratic insiders as a sort of Lady Macbeth figure whose blind ambition will result in the election again of Donald Trump, the man Biden ousted from office in 2020.

On the hubris front, Trump is probably peerless and utterly shameless. It was only the disaster of Biden’s slurred and incoherent performance on Thursday which lessened attention on the litany of lies and absurdities proffered by the criminal felon who likely now, barring Biden departing the race, will re-enter the White House in January with all that this entails.

A lot of the attention on the race for the White House is focused on the fact and actuarial predictions of the two oldest men ever to face off for this office: Biden is an old 81 and Trump a more vigorous but nearly as old 78 years. “No country for old men” does not apply here.

But age is not the only predictor in politics of those who succumb to the hubris syndrome.

Take last Sunday’s election in France as a counter-example.

President Emmanuel Macron became the youngest president in French history, aged just 39, when he was elected to office in 2017.

But in a spectacularly ill-judged attempt to rout the far right, his solo decision (apparently his own prime minister was not consulted) to call a snap parliamentary election after Marine Le Pen’s RN party surged in the recent elections to the European Parliament. But Euro elections are often seen as sites for protest votes, not deciders of national power.

Gridlocked system 

But thinking he could head the far right (and far left) off at the polls, Macron’s decision has now led to his centrist Renaissance party finishing third. And depending on the result of this Sunday’s second-round vote, Macron will either be forced to give the premiership to the first far-right leader since 1944 or be president (until 2027) of a gridlocked system where no budget can even pass.

Sylvie Kauffmann, editorial director of influential French newspaper Le Monde, wrote on Tuesday: “In an interview in 2015, before he became president, Macron mused that the French longed for the figure of the king… Once in office he embraced this ‘Jupiterian’ vision though he later claimed jokingly that Vulcan, the king of fire and forge, suited him better. Icarus punished for getting recklessly close to the sun, may now be more appropriate.”

As Macron crashes down to earth at the landing spot where hubris meets nemesis, here at home we have our own provincial clown show on a lesser plain.

Given his absurd inability to count properly (he only received 34.76% of the votes) premier Panyazi Lesufi, a spectacular example of an unpopular populist, behaves as though he is King of Gauteng with the divine right to rule.

His refusal to deal properly or, proportionally or remotely fairly with the DA is not simply a stunning example of bad faith – it displays a hubristic inability to be humble in the face of power loss. It augurs ill for the spirit of inclusivity displayed in the national GNU.

It is, on any basis, a sideshow. But let’s see who crashes down to earth in Johannesburg.