On Monday night, in the real world and in one of its cultural capitals, Paris, 800 years of French history and an icon of Christianity dating to the Middle Ages, went up in smoke.
While the lasting damage inflicted by the fire that devastated Notre Dame Cathedral is being assessed, the global shock and horror is immediate and spreads far beyond a country which sets such store and value by its formidable cultural accoutrements and architecture, of which Notre Dame is surely the finest.
The same night, but in the world of virtuality and fantasy, some die-hard South African fans were awake at 3am to watch the first installment of the eighth and last season of the television blockbuster Game of Thrones.
It is quite probable in our country and world of instant gratification and historic memory loss that more people can recite in grisly detail the gore and slaughter and treachery in the land of the Westeros than even locate from a photograph the identity of Notre Dame.
I recently finished reading the quite wonderful Andrew Roberts biography of Churchill, Walking with Destiny,and was struck anew by all the remarkable characteristics of perhaps the most profound statesman to bestride the 20th century. Many, many things the British politician and grandee got wrong, from racial profiling and imperialism in India to disastrous military adventures in Gallipoli and Norway. But on the hinge question of the very fate of the world in the teeth of the most brutal and militaristic dictatorship ever to rise its head in the history of the world, Hitler’s Germany, he was courageously correct.
As Roberts writes: “Churchill exhibited such a sense of blanket defiance in the 1930s, refusing to be cowed by the almost complete unanimity of the British establishment in appeasing Hitler and the Nazis.”
But what was even more striking – and it appears on the final page of this 982-page doorstopper – is the sad fact Roberts records in the country which Churchill once led with such courage and whose very existence he saved. He writes: “In a survey of 3,800 British teenagers in 2008, no fewer than 20% of them thought Winston Churchill to be a fictional character. In the same survey, 58% thought Sherlock Holmes and 47% thought Eleanor Rigby were real people. Of course this is an indictment of the virtual excision of Churchill form the school curriculum.”
Who knows if Churchill even gets a look-in from our benighted educational system. And at university level, where serious history is meant to be excavated, just forget about it in the post-colonial Rhodes must Fall fervid atmosphere which has gripped (woke) our local campuses.
So it’s probably a better bet to use the lens of cultural fantasy, not the reality of Notre Dame ablaze, for example, to offer some thoughts on the depressing discourse of our election campaign.
But the Game of Thrones franchise is actually a very good match for the joust in politics. As even the lofty Financial Times in a huge weekend feature on the series, noted: “It is a byword for the most brutal and cynical way of wielding power.”
The seven warring kingdoms contained by the walls of Westeros could be a composite metaphor for the wars raging within the fractious ANC. And while beheadings and far worse enthral viewers and voyeurs of the epic fantasy, in the Zuma stronghold of KwaZulu-Natal actual political assassinations – mostly in-house ANC affairs – are the real and deadly reality of the garden province.
But in Game of Thrones the existential threat lies beyond the walls of the seven kingdoms. So even if the on-off civil wars over the centuries don’t do it in the land created by George RR Martin, the undead “white walkers” outside threaten its entire existence.
Here in Cape Town, and appropriately accompanied by convicted criminal Tony Yengeni, the man at the centre of the Gangster State storm and looking suitably menacing in his dark shades, weighed in on our local equivalent undead whites. “Don’t vote for the umlungu,” Ace Magashule warned. But on the Alice in Wonderland principle that “words mean exactly what I want them to mean” he was defended by the ANC national spokesperson on the basis that this was simply a “denouncement of parties defending and protecting the interests of minorities”.
Actually, since the DA uses most of its provincial and municipal resources on spending in the black African areas, themselves a minority in the Western Cape, this “defence” is as risible as the original comment was utterly racist. But doubtless the theatre of the absurd, which trades under the name of the SA Human Rights Commission, would find no fault in the utterance and agree with the defence of it.
A little history might also inform that the entire constitution, to which millions of taxpayers’ funds are to be expended in celebrating, is founded on protecting minority interests of all stripes. The majority have control of the legislature and executive, and the minorities have the constitution.
But Magashule, 10 days after threatening legal action against the book which his enthusiastic supporters ripped apart recently and threatened to burn, has yet to produce a summons.
In the race-bating stakes Magashule comes a very poor second to ANC campaigner Philip Dexter. Formerly a senior ANC MP and trade unionist, he has to earn his passage back into favour, having committed the cardinal sin of deserting the ruling party for a while to join the breakaway COPE party. In addition to his political and union roles, he describes himself as an “entrepreneur”. Precisely what business or goods he has on offer is unclear. But as a merchant in race hatred he certainly holds the ring.
He recently offered this thought: “The majority of white South Africans are racist. A small portion of them are fascists. I am also fully aware of the struggle we need to wage to rid our country of such vermin.”
Hitler described Jews as the bacillus – a genus similar to the vermin of which Dexter writes. Roberts’s biography of Churchill reminds us that Jews only constituted 1% of the population of Germany before World War 2. Dexter does not describe how he will rid our country of its white citizens. Except even the white-friendlier face of the ANC, good King Cyril, describes the 6% of South Africans who are pale as “counterparts” not really “citizens”.
Oh and while Dexter and Magashule were railing against the umlungu, the president was urging Stellenbosch farmers to ensure their children remained in South Africa.
Notre Dame will be saved and rebuilt; Westeros will be engulfed in yet another war of all against all. But here on the planet South Africa who knows how – to quote the slogan which unites Ramaphosa, Magasula and Dexter – it is intended to “Grow South Africa Together”. It’s perhaps easier and certainly more entertaining to escape into fantasyland.
Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London.
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