Politicians cannot indulge in nostalgia as if they’re artists

READERS might be familiar with the rueful answer to the old question, “How do you make a small fortune?” You inherit a big fortune!

This reminder of multigenerational squandering of old family money or talent has many sad examples. In business, the example of Johann Rupert exceeding the reach and internationally diversifying his father Anton’s tobacco and liquor empire is perhaps the exception to the general rule. Nor is it confined to the world of wealth.

In domestic politics, you have the second generation of Sisulus — in the form of Human Settlements Minister Lindiwe and former parliamentary speaker Max, expanding the platform built by their illustrious parents, Walter and Albertina. But equally, the second and third generation of Mandelas emit a far lower wattage than the light of father Nelson, or even, more controversially, their mother, Winnie. They perhaps prove, in their public controversies, that inherited greatness can be more a curse than a blessing.

In the US, the Bush dynasty, and long before them the Adams family, produced father-and-son presidencies. But the Kennedy presidential promise, despite a multitude of wannabe political children and grandchildren, probably died with the assassination of Senator Robert F Kennedy in June 1968. Family history does not, in other words, vouchsafe future success.

So for a family, anywhere in the world, to produce three generations of exceptional talent and achievement in three different fields of endeavour is very rare.

SA’s Kentridge family is such an exception. Grandfather Morris served for nearly 40 years in Parliament and is credited with framing pioneering labour laws. His son, Sydney Kentridge, was arguably SA’s most distinguished advocate until he began an equally successful legal career in London, where he was knighted for his contribution to law. Both were at the forefront of the fight against segregation and apartheid.

Perhaps eclipsing both his grandfather and father in world recognition is Sydney’s eldest son, Johannesburg artist William. His dizzying accomplishments across multiple art forms have featured in major exhibitions at the greatest art museums in the world.

Attending a recent public conversation in Cape Town between William and his younger brother, Matthew, who has just published a book on his brother’s animated films, was not just a master class in thoughtful erudition. One of the extraordinary short animated films of William’s that form the basis of Matthew’s book, The Soho Chronicles — 10 Films by William Kentridge, is entitled Tide Tables. William explained its cross-generational theme deriving from the Greek word “nostos” — a return home — from which we derive the word nostalgia. And indeed the central figure in it, Soho Eckstein, was inspired by a photograph of Morris Kentridge incongruously dressed in a pin-striped suit seated on a deck chair on Muizenberg beach perhaps 60 years ago. But the allusions contained in its depictions are both frighteningly modern, such as HIV/AIDS, and enduring, such as authoritarianism and poverty.

In the narration, the nostalgia evoked in the flickering images is etched by pain, because “what is far more painful is to look back through the eyes of experience and to reflect the path down which we have come, the blunders, the wrong turnings”.

In fact, nostalgia was first diagnosed as a medical term in the 17th century, meaning “pain to describe the psychological condition of longing for the past”.

SA is not alone in the world today, buffeted by rough tides of economic misfortune and political drift, in seeking comfort in nostalgia. Rare is the week or month when we are not commemorating some anniversary. Only last week, pomp and ceremony attended the returning remains of struggle heroes JB Marks and Moses Kotane, who died more than 35 years ago and were buried in the Soviet Union.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with remembering history, provided you do not get captured by it or so distort its meaning that you paralyse effective action to address the present. But at the ceremony to mark the return of the remains of Marks and Kotane, Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa lavished praise on the Soviet Union, describing it as having been, in the 1930s, “one of the most desirable destinations for knowledge and information” and providing a welcome home to members of the South African Communist Party “to study the science of socialism”.

This is a rather extraordinary statement. It references the exact time when dictator Joseph Stalin was bloodily purging, torturing and murdering his intellectual and other opponents. There was nothing of science in this socialism, only violence and terror.

Perhaps being on the right side of the struggle in SA inoculates allies, even of the most totalitarian and murderous sort, from the science of true historical inquiry. The apartheid regime distorted Soviet communism as an excuse for its own tyranny and as a handy club to bludgeon its opponents. The present government, like one of Kentridge’s palimpsests, paints over the real history of the era it distorts for its own purposes.

Today in Russia, apparently now our closest ally in the Brics club of nations, nostalgia is also at play. It is best termed “revanchism” or revenging the territories it lost when the Soviet empire collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin grimly described this collapse in 2007: “Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century.”

The people of Crimea and East Ukraine learnt last year just how determinedly Putin would act, with missiles and surrogate troops, to reset the borders to make good this “disaster”. But the economics of Russia today, hugely dependent on declining oil and gas prices and subject to searing financial sanctions, might yet unravel both the price of conquest and costs of nostalgia.

Sound economic policy and best practice cannot, unlike political gestures or grandstanding, remain enthralled to the past. It requires, in the words of our National Development Plan, looking forward, not back. “Successful countries have what is called a future orientation.”

Indeed, while our ideological allies are revanchist, our economic needs mandate us to move in the other direction.

Israel is about as low down as you can go on our government’s list of approved friends. And while there is much to criticise about its own expansionist policies, there is much that is right with its economic direction. A book, Start Up Nation — The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle, by Dan Senor and Saul Singer, explains one of the less-known but more remarkable facts of a country little bigger than the Kruger National Park: “Key economic metrics demonstrate that Israel represents the greatest concentration of innovation and entrepreneurship in the world today.”

The data are given in the book, but the clue to them is provided in the foreword by former president Shimon Peres: “People prefer remembering to imagining. Memory deals with familiar things; imagination deals with the unknown. Imagination can be frightening — it requires risking a departure from the familiar.”

Indeed. Fine artists can use memory and nostalgia, and even distort them, for great purpose. Policy makers need to apply imaginative and modern solutions to address the great contemporary problems.