The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert A Caro ranks as one of the finest biographies yet written on leaders and their complexions, compulsions and achievements. 

In volume four of this epic work, The Passage of Power, Caro writes of the moment when Johnson was thrust into the presidency after the assassination of John F Kennedy in November 1963. He notes:

“But although the cliche says that power always corrupts, what is seldom said … is that power always reveals. When a man is climbing, trying to persuade others to give him power, concealment is necessary … But as a man obtains more power, camouflage becomes less necessary.”

Mass protests across the US and the world right now following the dreadful slow-motion killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25 under the knee of police officer Derek Chauvin, make this earlier epoch appear of distant interest. It is not: it is worth reflecting on how Johnson used his accidental presidency to immediately ram through Congress the greatest enactment of emancipatory legislation – the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – which had eluded his predecessor. This law did far more than any other to establish legislated equality between black and white since the American Civil War ended in 1865 and with it the curse of slavery.

In the same year, 1964, Johnson won the greatest share of the popular vote of any president in the country’s history, a record not eclipsed since. But within four years of that monumental win he was forced from office and decided not to contest the election in 1968.

The disastrous and increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam was one reason, but mayhem on the streets of major cities at home was another. And the fuel to the flames incinerating buildings and police cars then was essentially the same as that on display right now: deep and simmering resentment at the systemic mistreatment of black Americans and their continuing deprivation despite the impressive enactment of Johnson’s “Big Society” programmes.

It has been noted by many commentators that the person who won the presidential election the year that Johnson vacated office was a candidate who ran on a “law and order” ticket, Richard Nixon.

Of course the cri de coeur for many of the protestors of 1968 was the assassination of the most prominent black leader of the time, perhaps of all time in the US,  Nobel Prize winner Martin Luther King jnr. His death followed by the killing of dovish liberal senator and political heir to his slain brother’s legacy, Robert F Kennedy, suggested something indeed was rotten at the core of US life and society.

Historical parallels between 1968 and 2020 only take us so far: Johnson stood down as incumbent, while the incendiary Donald Trump has every intention of seeking re-election in November and mimics Nixon’s call for law and order (he also borrowed his slogan “Make America Great Again” from another winning Republican, Ronald Reagan). But Trump is equally no Nixon, who had a worldview larger than his ego, even if his own insecurities eventually led to his resignation in 1974.

And, indeed, George Floyd, despite the terrible circumstances of his death and the sparks of protest it has lit, was no Martin Luther King. He was a petty criminal, which not for a nanosecond condones his killing or the casual police brutality which led to it, but suggests, like the Nixon-Trump comparison, that this can illuminate as much as it conceals the complexity of comparison.

It was also surprising that in his remarks on the Floyd killing, our own president, who has a reputation for non-racial inclusivity, drew a comparison between the dead victim in Minneapolis and the killing in police custody here in 1977 of black consciousness leader Steve Biko, during the launch of the ANC-led “Black Friday” last week.

The only basis for this parallel was that “Biko, just like Floyd, was also killed by white law enforcement officers”. And that racial fact appears to be the only link between the two deaths and the moral universes occupied by both victims.

Of course, amid a range of other factors, Ramaphosa, like  Trump incidentally, has no control over the Minneapolis Police Department, just as he was utterly powerless when the security police did their worst against Biko in the police cells of Port Elizabeth 43 years ago.

But as Ferial Haffajee and other journalists have pointed out, 11 black people here have been killed by the police and army, which Ramaphosa directly controls and commands. His response to the death of Collins Khosa and the other less-known victims was to attribute it to the fact that “the police let their enthusiasm get the better of them”. As Hafajee responded, “really!” Indeed.

I am certain that the racial identity of both police officers and victims of state brutality is essential when evidence of systemic discrimination and inequality is in focus. But in your own backyard, when life is casually and brutally snuffed by out-of-control police and military officers, the silence is damning. It was also white political activists in the struggle against apartheid, such as Ruth First and Neil Aggett, who were killed by white security officers, and it is their deaths too which Ramaphosa lessens when he makes the issue about only race and bypasses the institutionalised nature of all power abuses.

Perhaps then Caro’s passage on what power reveals is the most telling comment of all: once in office, less camouflage and concealment is necessary. Indeed, Ramaphosa showed his bent for authority and allegiance for militarism by donning camouflage at the commencement of the lockdown. And by casually ignoring their violent excesses.

The current crises confronting us bring the best and worst of leadership to the fore. They strip away a lot of assumption on holders of high office as their real colours, not racial but ideological and attitudinal, are revealed.

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.

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