The death last week of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, whose extraordinary long and consequential life was heralded across the world, has occasioned many reminiscences from thousands of encounters with His Royal Highness.
For while Prince Philip always walked two steps behind his wife, Queen Elizabeth II, he was usually several paces in front of a swirling number of controversies his crusty comments and flippancies created.
The Times of London, amid acres of adulatory coverage on his passing last weekend, did headline one of its many obits, “Undaunted Prince Philip had an insult for all occasions”.
In his appraisal piece, Valentine Low summed up the late prince’s persona and penchant for the gaffe as akin to “a walking time bomb”. “You never knew when he would go off, or how explosive the results would be. He could insult anyone, at any time, without fear, favour or hesitation: foreigners, women, Scotsmen, journalists (of course), and eco-enthusiasts … he took political incorrectness to new heights, and if headlines that resulted from his indiscretions were to be believed, left a trail of diplomatic ill-feeling in his wake.”
I am not certain into which category, if any, my very brief encounter and dialogue, if not too grand a description for the occasion, fell when I met Prince Philip when he and the queen were on a state visit to SA in March 1995.
It is worth reminding ourselves that this was the most golden moment in recent South African history. Nelson Mandela was president and the world and his wife, literally, beat a path to share in the Madiba magic and the afterglow of the dramatic creation of a newfound democracy on the stony soil of conflicted SA.
In an anteroom near the ballroom of the Cape Sun Hotel, Mandela had gathered members of his cabinet and some other political figures of the time, including yours truly, to meet the royal couple ahead of the dinner for several hundred guests which followed.
Mandela introduced me to the queen as “This is the leader of our Democratic Party, a young man who gives me a lot of trouble!” Her Majesty offered no comment, save to extend a gloved hand which I nervously shook accompanied, as previously instructed, with a slight bow. She moved on to the next in line.
However, Prince Philip, who followed in his wife’s regal wake, asked me: “And what party do you represent?” When I answered “Democratic Party”, he responded: “But aren’t you all democratic here now? What exactly do you stand for” he quizzed me further. “Well, we are a liberal party.” “Why don’t you just call yourselves the Liberal Party then?” he asked (or probably barked). I answered: “Well, the term ‘liberal’ isn’t very popular in SA.” And he replied: “Well, we’ve got plenty of liberals in England. The problem with the word ‘democratic’ is that every dictatorship in the modern world has called itself ‘democratic’ from East Germany to North Korea. Isn’t that so? Ha ha ha!”
And he walked away, having made his point in princely fashion. Hardly controversial, and an acute analysis of the need to retain a healthy scepticism about names and labels and the meaning and context attached to them. As Tolstoy reminds us: “The leaves of a tree delight more than the roots.”
The far larger moment of the prince’s passing coincided here with a Twitter outrage, stoked by the frenzied false outrage brigade who claimed offence when in an interview about my new book Future Tense I referred to the leadership of the party which I had led before as “an experiment that went wrong” as Mmusi Maimane had never committed to the party’s ideals before joining it.
In this of course I was guided by his own biography — interestingly subtitled Prophet or Puppet? – in which he advised S’thembiso Msomi that in the three previous elections before he signed a DA card, he had voted against the DA or DP, was an admirer of Thabo Mbeki and had given serious consideration to joining another opposition party, COPE, before finally agreeing to sign up with the DA.
It was also certainly novel and unprecedented, a veritable experiment, to appoint as leader of the opposition someone who was chosen for the post on the same day he arrived in parliament. There have been eight leaders of the official opposition since 1994, of both genders and races, and only one was chosen without one day’s parliamentary experience.
All such detail and context was entirely omitted and ignored and indeed the original comment was never read, save by a few who could penetrate the paid firewall in which News24 had encased the interview.
However, as Myburgh indicated, context, reading for plain meaning, has little appeal in “a hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness which seems to flow through much of our commentariat like an electric current”.
Since he unearthed so many examples of the same commentators, outraged when this writer used the same term to the same person they in turn had previously “disparaged” with the same label, there is an array of examples. One, however, stood out: The Sowetan published a condemnatory editorial last week for the “experiment gone wrong” phrase. Myburgh points out that the same newspaper in 2019 on his departure from its ranks described it as “… The Maimane experiment has now collapsed.”
Even the late Prince Philip might have been stumped for a rejoinder on this.
Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.
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