On the weekend, as the once feared Springboks were humiliated by Wales for only the third time in 110 years, just after the Italian job, their riches-to-rags story coincided with a newly released academic report. It has resonance beyond sport, right into the ugly heart of local and world events.
The UK’s Daily Mail published a fascinating study led by Andy Reagan, a PhD candidate at the University of Vermont. It uses an artificial intelligence programme to map what happens in 1,137 books, ranging from classics, through children’s books to modern sagas. As the Mail says, “no matter how much time you spend with your nose in a book, chances are that you have only ever read six types of story”.
To the extent that anyone still reads books, the list of six well-worn plots is fascinating. One of them, at least, pops up in the thousand-plus titles computed by the researchers.
The story lines are: man-in-a-hole ( Moby Dick); rags-to-riches ( Pride and Prejudice/ Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ); riches-to-rags ( King Lear/Gone With the Wind ); fall-then-rise ( Robinson Crusoe/The Ugly Duckling ); “Cinderella” or rise-fall-then-rise ( Oliver Twist/ Ben Hur ); and “Oedipus” or fall-then-rise-then fall ( Robin Hood/ Bridget Jones’s Diary ).
Awaiting a late-night, long-haul flight home on Saturday, and to mitigate airport fatigue, I adjusted this literally novel template.
Despite the intense local noise and apparently rapid changes to the economic and political landscape, South Africa’s narrative arc can be reduced, for better though largely for worse, to a similar number of tropes.
Well-worn plots which provide a clarifying viewing lens to disentangle some bewildering happenings would include these archetypes:
WILL HE STAY OR WILL HE GO?
Of course the recent goings-on at the national executive meeting of the ANC relate to the future of President Jacob Zuma. Rhinoceros-hide insensitivity doesn’t begin to describe “the cuticle-wrenching intensity” with which he clings to the highest office, which he demeans with every passing day. His party on his future, at the time of writing, to quote Winston Churchill, is “resolved to be irresolute”.
But you can throw this trope out wide: the lousy Bok coach Allister Coetzee doesn’t man up to his colossal failure but gabbles on post-match about “a new dawn for SA rugby”. What? No sign of him benching himself any time soon.
In fact I can think of just two public figures who fell on their swords due to public shaming: former ANC MP Pallo Jordan, who faked his doctorate; and outgoing Eskom CEO Brian Molefe, who wept and then resigned, a casualty of “state capture”.
This is a very overcrowded narrative but with, alas, few surprise exits.
RISE AND FALL
These days it’s more falling than rising in the local storybook except for our massively volatile currency, which does both – often in the same week.
But “Rhodes Must Fall” soon enough morphed into university fees generally, then back to Number One (“Zuma must fall”). Now there’s even “science must fall” and calls to be “decolonised” – whatever that means for astrophysics and the like. But this narrative arc is like a virus which infects everyone and mutates into the strangest places.
For example, the DA boasts the highly credentialed academic Professor Belinda Bozzoli as its higher education spokesman. But even she was reduced to a long “whaat?” on Twitter in response to her own party’s youth movement calling for education to be “decolonised”.
I WAS A VICTIM…
Our president might have a very shaky grasp of economics and legality, as his faltering performance in parliament last week revealed, but he has a definite take on history and the blame game. He pointed out that the country’s problems began with Jan van Riebeeck more than 350 years ago.
The usefulness of “victimology” as a handy standby for all current failures is that it exempts the claimant from explaining what has happened on the ruling party’s watch – which is coming up for its quarter-century of uninterrupted rule.
Interestingly, two of the better performing fellow Brics members, China and India, overcame quite ghastly pasts to power on to their present levels of relative economic success.
Then there are more standout African economic success stories, such as Rwanda and Ivory Coast. In the case of the former, while South Africa was celebrating its freedom in 1994, that country underwent the worst ethnic genocide witnessed in modern times. But it now outperforms South Africa on business benchmarks, sans excuses, though with a sharp authoritarian undertow.
THE MYTH OF THE MANICHEANS AND THE ANTINOMIANS
The Manicheans were a third-century Mesopotamian religion which divided everything into light and dark and, more usefully for our divided land, into black and white. For them and their latter-day adherents there is no place (despite the unlikely success of the EL James sex saga) for grey, not even one shade of it.
If you are on the “right” side then you have a free pass, and if you’re the “wrong” colour just forget about it. Bizarrely, on Monday we witnessed an update on this well-worn trope. Disgraced sushi-king and criminal convict Kenny Kunene tweeted that Zuma’s fiercest internal critic, Derek Hanekom, had “two passports” and was unpatriotic.
In fact, Hanekom was imprisoned for his struggle efforts, from which his detractor was notably absent. Kunene did indeed go to prison – but for running a Ponzi scheme. But black and white and all that.
Even closer to providing an explanation for current goings-on was that quaint 16th-century heretic group, the Antinomians.
As Geoffrey Wheatcroft explains: “They believed that ‘to the pure all things are pure. If you were of the elect, the saved, you could merrily eat, drink, fornicate (as they duly did) in the certainty of salvation’.”
Think here of South Africa giving lectures on human rights to Israel, for example, while denying the Dalai Lama a visa. Or simply ignoring the immense human rights violations of Fidel Castro, post mortem, because he contributed to the struggle against apartheid. Etc, etc, etc.
FICTION TRUMPS FACTS
You could not make up a lot of what goes on here but, happily or otherwise, this applies across the world this year. Brexit and the Trumpquake come to mind. It has become a universal thing: electing people to office whom the voters support but don’t believe are qualified for office.
Journalist Andrew Rawnsley pointed out that the leader of Italy’s populist Five Star movement, which has taken power in Rome, is led by a comedian with the slogan vaffanculo (which translates as “f*** off”).
But with these improbable events comes irony: who would have thought that the last significant liberal democratic leader in the world today would be the chancellor of Germany?
AND THEY ALL LIVED HAPPILY EVER AFTER…
Strangely, this story line did not feature in the recent computerised study of literary archetypes. Maybe it is implied. The unanswered question is whether we will ever witness such an ending here?