Some things never cease to inspire us. They literally breathe life into us. They do so because they deepen our hope in our own humanity.
When a person has been seriously wronged, and it would be perfectly understandable if she were to get even, yet instead she forgives, we marvel and we inhale a deep breath of her goodness.
When a person shackled by poverty makes a contribution out of the little he has – a contribution proportionally far greater than the larger contributions of those much better off – we are humbled and we inhale a deep breath of his generosity.
When a person can legally claim much more but settles for no more than she needs, we are challenged and we inhale a deep breath of her humility.
These examples of human goodness, generosity and humility inspire us, not least because we know that in each case an internal battle had first to be waged and won before their deed was actualised. In each case the pull of comfortable self-centredness and the push of fearful self-interest had to be overcome. In a Viktor Frankl-ish kind of way, this fills us with resilient hopefulness as the full freedom and promising potential of our own human condition is revealed to us.
Selfless action remains on top of the list of things that inspire us. Conversely selfish action is a fast and sure way to drown us in the depths of despair. We are very sensitive to the selfless or selfish action of others, especially leaders. Even though it may be argued that selfishness and extreme individuality have become the norm, it doesn’t take much to alert us to which direction they are moving in.
Take Pope Francis: he has chosen to live in a modest apartment rather than the papal palace. Instead of the traditional red papal slippers he sticks to his simple black shoes. He prefers to eat in a dining room with his colleagues and has been known to carry his own luggage. These are not outrageously sacrificial acts – after all he has not decided to wander around homeless, barefoot and hungry – yet we marvel because we know that in each case he could claim more but delights in less. His self-restraint is what inspires us. These small, yet significant acts are the ways Pope Francis expresses his solidarity with us, and because of them we are more open to his leadership. This is equally true of Jose Mujica, the president of Uruguay, who since becoming president lives in his same farmhouse and drives his same VW beetle.
Now take President Zuma. At every opportunity he has chosen to exploit his position to acquire more. He mistakenly thinks that if he can only prove that his actions are legal all will be well, yet it takes more than legality to offset the effects of selfish behaviour. Instead of breathing life into us by exampling the best of our humanity, as a leader should, he drains us by diminishing our hopefulness in our shared humanity.
This is equally true for those (non)leaders who defend him. Minister Nhleko and others have missed an opportunity to inspire the nation. In the words of Upton Sinclair Jr., “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” but that is precisely why, if the minister had told the truth, he could have breathed new life into our land. We would have saluted his bravery as we have consistently saluted our heroic Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, and history would be kind to him as one of SA’s life-givers.
We are learning that a person’s true character is not only revealed under adversity and hardship, but exposed by luxury and ease. Once upon a time President Zuma inspired a people in adversity when he was courageously willing to give his life in the struggle for our liberation, but today under the weight of prosperity he has failed. Opulence has done to him what oppression could not do to him – make him think only of himself. When he was powerless he showed us his power. Now that he is powerful, he shows us his weakness.
Yet, Mr President, redemption is still possible.
Inspire us by donating Nkandla – yes, all of it – to your neighbours. Let it become a school, a clinic, and a recreation centre. Let it be overrun by barefoot children learning to swim. This is probably the best security upgrade for the nation as a whole because it will fill us all with hope.
By doing so, Mr President, you will breathe life into this nation, and your example will challenge the rest of us who also fail to live inspiring lives. DM