Opinionista Marianne Thamm 20 November 2013

The Hubris Test: How sane are our politicians really? You play the doctor.

In 2007, David Owen, medical doctor, former Labour Foreign Secretary, co-founder and leader of the Social Democratic Party and a Lords crossbencher, penned a short but riveting book about the psychology of leaders and the intoxication of power. In the book Owen suggests that Tony Blair and George W. Bush – in the light of their actions in the Iraq war - both suffered from a form of mental illness that Owen has labelled “The Hubris Syndrome”. Let’s put some of South Africa’s leaders on Owen’s diagnostic couch.

It takes a certain kind of personality to choose to enter the viper’s nest that is the cutthroat global contemporary political landscape. Ambition, most certainly, and that of itself is not a bad quality – the desire to serve and lead can be noble. And by “serve” we are implying here for the benefit of “the greater good” and not self-interest.

Writing about political ambition, Zambian commentator, Elias Munshya wa Munshya, remarked recently, “In fact, Zambian democracy manifests itself greatly in the personal ambition of various political players. Without personal ambition, democracy would lose its value and we could quickly slip back into a one-party or one-man participatory democracy. As such, it is the personal ambition of various political players that gives fuel and impetus to the fight for democracy anywhere.”

A fair point, you would agree.

The second quality so often possessed by those who seek public office is the more problematic one: narcissism. Narcissism – an utterly selfish notion and perception of the self – is an affliction that not only affects individuals but also groups. For example, white South Africans in the past suffered from a form of political, state-sanctioned “collective narcissism” viewing themselves as  “better than and superior to other groups”.

To step into the political ring requires extraordinary character traits – whether good or bad – as the demands of this choice of “career” call for a particular and peculiar capacity for work and engagement. Whether this journey is undertaken with good or mal intent is not the issue here, but the sheer amount of energy, guile, cunning and strategy it takes to want, to seize and to hold on to power and influence is generally beyond most mortals.

So what is it that our leaders say about us?

It was Freud who first suggested, “Groups take on the personality of their leaders”. In a 2011 Newsweek profile titled “Not Just Any Old Charlatan”, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusoni is described thus: “He is the great enabler who, for nearly two decades, has allowed Italians to feel they can cheat on anything from their taxes to their spouses because he does it himself. Berlusconi knows the Italian psyche well in part because he’s created it through his media influence. And he has succeeded both personally and politically by playing to Italians’ greatest weaknesses and worst instincts.”

In his award-wining book, Three Letter Plague, Jonny Steinberg found an echo of this in the poor, young, unemployed men he encountered who see in Jacob Zuma that same embodiment those so-called “greatest weaknesses and worst instincts”.

“People’s love for Zuma has been shaped by a context, the most important of which is the dire state of our political economy, which prevents the majority of youths from becoming the adults they aspire to be. Zuma is not just sexually competent: he is also a patriarch, a man with a meaningful vocation, and a father of children who bear his name. People love him because they trust he will deliver at least a sliver of his own fate,” wrote Steinberg.

So, our leaders do, as sociologist and cultural critic, Philip Reiff suggested, “act as a centre around which otherwise disturbed lives can be organised.”

With all of that in mind, perhaps it is time to put some of our leaders on the couch and zip through some of David Owens’ “list of symptoms” that would indicate a leader’s leaning towards “Hubris Syndrome”. Now, this is not a scientific or professional exercise but merely one that might allow us to assess some of our leaders (and those we may support) according to Owens’ political diagnostic manual.

“The behavioral symptoms in a head of government which might trigger the diagnosis of hubristic syndrome typically grow in strength and are represented by more than three or four symptoms being present,” writes Owen in his introduction.

While Owen lists 14 symptoms, we reproduce nine of these here.

For the purposes of our amusement, may I suggest that we include not only the head of government but also the leaders of opposition political parties in our little Daily Maverick quiz. (You may participate in this quiz in the comments section later and we look forward to your responses.)

1.        A narcissistic propensity to see the world primarily as an arena in which they can exercise power and seek glory rather than a place with problems that need approaching in a pragmatic and non-self-referential manner. My candidate here is former President Thabo Mbeki.

2         A disproportionate concern with image and presentation. Winner Julius Malema, runner up Helen Zille followed by Jacob Zuma, particularly when dressed in traditional garb for special occasions.

3.        An identification with themselves with the state to the extent that they regard the outlook and interests of the two as identical. Champion of this category has to be Jacob Zuma…Even Thuli Madonsela, in her answering affidavit to the security cluster, reckoned that when it comes to Zuma there is “a conflation of personal security with the security of the state”. So big tick in that box for Mshololzi.

4.         Tendency to talk of themselves in the third person or using the royal “we”. A title once belonging to the heavyweight Thabo Mbeki but that now most certainly goes to EFF Leader, Julius Malema.

5.         A belief that rather than being accountable to the mundane court of colleagues or public opinion, the real court to which they answer is much greater “History or God”. Joint award to Jacob Zuma and Julius Malema.

6.         An unshakeable belief that in THAT court they will be vindicated. The usual suspects as above.

7.         Loss of contact with reality often associated with progressive isolation. I can immediately picture Thabo Mbeki with his single malt and pipe surfing the Internet all alone at night in his office.

8. A tendency to allow their “broad vision” especially their conviction about moral rectitude of a proposed course of action, to obviate the need to consider other aspects of it, such as practicability, cost and possibility unwanted outcomes. Helen Zille on the DA position on BEE legislation.

9.         A consequent type of incompetence in carrying out a policy, which could be called hubristic incompetence. This is where things go wrong precisely because too much self-confidence has led to the leader not to bother with worrying about the nuts and bolts of a policy. It can be allied to an incurious nature. It has to be distinguished from ordinary incompetence, where the necessary detailed work on the complex issues involved is engaged in but mistakes in decision-making are made nonetheless. Not sure of the overall winner in this category but close runners are the SACP’s Blade Nzimande, Cosatu’s Zwelenzima Vavi and a significant number of the country’s ministers and premiers.

The solution Owen offers to discovering that our leaders might suffer from a precarious mental state is to first understand the condition – and then presumably withhold our vote.

“We need more clues, or alerting information, as to why some leaders may develop hubris when in office. The good sense of the people in a democracy is then more likely to ensure that those chosen have qualities in their character which will not succumb to the intoxication of power,” he concludes.

You have been warned. DM


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