First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
His name was Ernest, and he is my lifelong hero. He arrived on the barren and beautiful island of South Georgia on 4 January 1922, at the helm of his expedition that was bound for Antarctica. The following night he suffered a massive heart attack. He died in the morning, only 47 years old. He was buried in South Georgia, an island that was so crucial in his life. His grave, unlike all others on the island, looks straight into Antarctica. His body may have been committed to the frozen paradise in the middle of the South Atlantic, but his soul has remained immortal.
His full name was Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton and he was one of three great Antarctic explorers of the early 20th century, the other two being Roald Amundsen and Captain Robert Falcon Scott. Shackleton never achieved any of the feats he attempted: he never reached the South Pole and had to abandon the trek across Antarctica before it even started. And yet, to me, he was the greatest of them all, the type of leader humanity needs in moments of great deprivation and turmoil.
Shackleton started as Scott’s companion in the unsuccessful 1901-1904 Discovery expedition. He returned to Antarctica on his own Nimrod expedition (1907-1909). He and his three crew members came so close (about 180km) to the South Pole they could smell success. But Shackleton knew that at least some of them would die should they push forward, so he decided to turn back and forgo immortality so his crew could live.
Shackleton would have been a great hero even if he simply returned to England and lived on speeches and presentations. But what transformed a hero into a giant of humanity was the unbelievable suffering he and his crew survived in his 1914-1917 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, which shifted human and spiritual endurance to levels never seen before.
His plan was for his team to be the first to walk across Antarctica, but their ship, Endurance, got stopped and then crushed by ice in the Weddell Sea on 21 November 1915.
They were forced to evacuate their camp and to sail almost 600km in three lifeboats to Elephant Island, one of the most inhospitable places on the planet. There they spent two Antarctic winters under the most horrifying conditions possible, huddling under the overturned lifeboats. Just before the second winter, and fully understanding the cost of not doing anything, Shackleton gave the order to execute perhaps the most daring rescue attempt in the history of humankind. The least damaged of the 20-foot lifeboats was strengthened for the trip to South Georgia, 1,300km away, where they knew there was a whaling station that could help.
But Shackleton was not a leader who would not himself lead. On 24 April 1916, he set sail with a crew of five; it took them 14 days of sailing through the world’s roughest seas to reach South Georgia. There was one small problem – they landed on the wrong side of the island. Shackleton didn’t dare reach the whaling station by sea, because the wild currents and insane waves would have almost certainly crushed their battered lifeboat. So he decided to cross South Georgia by land, a feat never before attempted and not repeated until long after.
Guess who was leading this impossible attempt again? A true leader, Shackleton took two of his strongest crew and completed a 50km trek across the dangerous mountainous terrain in just 36 hours, equipped only with a piece of rope. You can imagine the Norwegian whalers’ shock when they saw three dishevelled Englishmen stumble into their station – from the wrong side of the island. Shackleton immediately set out to save his crew on the other side of South Georgia and from Elephant Island, which he succeeded in doing on his fourth attempt, because of rough seas, on 20 August 1916.
And here comes a truly shocking detail: after two Antarctic winters, only one of the crew lost his toes because of frostbite. To me, that is the ultimate proof of Shackleton’s greatness. He led indeed, but he led with humanity as the ultimate moral compass. Nothing was more important than his crew and their wellbeing.
True leaders never let their personal goals and ambitions cost the lives of the people who trust them with leadership.
Compare that with some of the “leaders” of today. Donald Trump happily thrust the US into a once-in-a-century upheaval in order to stay out of jail, and that after a year of mismanaging the pandemic, lest it affects his ability to campaign in the 2020 elections. Leading from the back, he pushed for the 6 January upheaval, only, true to his cowardly character, to claim he had nothing to do with it.
Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, insane as he is, is perfectly okay with turning Brazil into a hot mess, with the Covid-19 death toll breaching 500,000 while he’s busy radicalising the country in order to remain in power. All while safely ensconced in his presidential palace.
There is just too much cowardly leadership in the world right now, and humanity is paying the price.
There is massive competition for the title, what with Jacob Zuma, Ace Magashule, Dr Iqbal Survé, but South Africa’s crown for cowardly leadership has to go to one Julius Malema and his sidekick, Floyd Shivambu.
Hypocrisy is one of the most distinguishing signs of cowardly leadership and the EFF leaders shine too brightly there. Preaching anti-corruption while being corrupt themselves is already a defining characteristic. But what truly lifts them above everyone else is the ease with which they send their armies of blind supporters to bully and intimidate whoever Malema/Shivambu need to break/scare/extort. All of it while they themselves are sitting safely behind, just cruising. Their foot soldiers are sometimes arrested and left to their own devices.
In a piece in 2018, I wrote:
“It takes extraordinary cowardice to verbally attack female journalists just for doing their job in a society that is plagued with violence against women. That cowardice, however, is taken to a Trumpian level when the suppression of free media, racism and violence against women is wrapped in one continuous vicious attack that has just enough legal caveat – should something horrible happen to the targets of their attack – to claim innocence and throw one’s own supporters under the legal bus instead.”
Three years later, the only thing that has changed is that their supporters are now also exposing themselves to the risk of contracting Covid-19 to fight the Sahpra battle neither they, nor their leaders, know anything about.
Like so many times in history, they are just fodder, a rounding error in someone’s sick ambition game.
Shackleton, the hero, the leader, was in so many ways unique and might not come again soon. Today’s “leaders” – Trump, Bolsonaro, Duterte, Zuma, Magashule, Malema – don’t know what true leadership is and will never know. Let’s face it, it is difficult to see anything through the haze of smoke, mirrors and con artistry that is today’s world. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.