Defend Truth


Politics, Power and Passion – A Pernicious Pestilence


Dr Brij Maharaj is an academic and civil society activist.

Over the ages there has been a great deal of discussion and debate about why men (and a few women), at the pinnacle of their political careers, with their country (and sometimes the world) literally at their feet, lose it all because of risqué behaviour. A succinct response is that power, politics and corruption are synonymous.

Politics, power and passion is a pernicious pestilence, often fuelled by humungous, narcissistic egos (considered a serious flaw by some faiths). French military and political leader, Napoleon Bonaparte, is said to have remarked that women “belong to the highest bidder … Power is what they like – is the greatest of all aphrodisiacs”. More than a century later, Henry Kissinger, who was Richard Nixon’s Secretary of State, was to repeat: “Power is the great aphrodisiac.”

Some recent examples of political leaders who were forced to fall on their swords because of impropriety include New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, who announced his resignation on 12 March 2008 after he was associated with prostitution. In December 2011 Herman Cain, a potential candidate for the Republican presidential nominee, had to withdraw when he was accused of abusing and exploiting women.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn was the managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and widely tipped to be the next French President but his world came crashing down when he was accused of sexually assaulting a maid in a New York hotel, and was forced to resign in May 2011. He subsequently acknowledged a “moral fault” towards his family and the people of France “who placed in [him] their hope for change”.

The cases of Bill Clinton and Gennifer Flowers, Bill and Paula Jones, Bill and Monica Lewinsky, Bill and “fill-in-the-blank” are legendary.

Then there is the case of Jawaharlal Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten, wife of Louis Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India. In his defence, Nehru would have most probably argued that he was scoring to get even with the British Empire.

There is a view that “power causes people to become disinhibited, increasing the likelihood that they will act on their (sometimes selfish) impulses, rather than thinking carefully about what is best for the group. Power can cause people to objectify others and to see them as a means to their own ends”.

According to Australian author Louis Nowra: “Politics is about power and with it comes the exhilaration of being the dominant male. The risks of discovery these men take in their private lives is a part of the allure of such adventures. The excitement of the risk of being caught is underpinned by their arrogance and feelings of invulnerability, something that was evident in Clinton’s dangerous fling. But there’s more to it. The art of politics is being able to seduce your backers and the public to vote for you. It’s only a short step to these men thinking it’s only natural that they can also seduce any woman they want.”

The Harvard Business Review has pointed out the contradiction between how power is acquired and how it is used: “No one can lead who does not first acquire power, and no leader can be great who does not know how to use that power. The trouble is that the combination of the two skills is rare. Amassing power requires ambition, a focused pragmatism, and a certain ruthlessness that is often at odds with the daring, idealistic vision needed to achieve great things with that power.”

Professor Bill George from the Harvard Business School has argued that “many leaders get to the top by imposing their will on others, even destroying people standing in their way. When they reach the top, they may be paranoid that others are trying to knock them off their pedestal. Sometimes they develop an imposter complex, caused by deep insecurities that they aren’t good enough and may be unmasked”.

Frequently leaders are unable to acknowledge their faults, flaws and failings, often denying responsibility for mistakes, and shifting the blame onto scapegoats: “Using their power, charisma, and communications skills, they force people to accept these distortions, causing entire organisations to lose touch with reality”. This could be an apt analysis of President Jacob Zuma’s modus operandi for the past eight years.

US Senator John Ensign from Nevada was embroiled in an affair with campaign aide Cynthia Hampton and was forced to resign in May 2011, and offered the following advice to his colleagues: “When one takes a position of leadership, there is a very real danger of getting caught up in the hype surrounding that status … Surround yourselves with people who will be honest with you about how you really are and what you are becoming, and then make them promise to not hold back… from telling you the truth”.

It would not be possible to follow his sage advice in South Africa, as those who speak truth to power are likely to face death threats. A good, prescient example would be the case of Makhosi Khoza.

Daniel Batson, Professor of Psychology at the University of Kansas, contends, “politicians are asking for the public trust and generally one would trust someone only if they thought they had, if not one’s own best interest, at least the interest of the community at heart.

So as potential candidates are lining up for the South African presidential race, some are likely to be defaulted for sprinting off before the starter’s pistol has fired. Others may fall foul because Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini has warned that most ANC members have “smallanyana skeletons” in their closets. Recent revelations about the private lives of Jeff Radebe and Cyril Ramaphosa, with sinister suggestions of more to come, have put them on the back foot. This puts Nkosana Dlamini-Zuma in pole position.

Aspiring presidential candidates in South Africa may want to heed Professor Daniel Kruger’s advice that voters “hold leaders to higher moral standards than they would their fellow women and men. They want leaders who are ideally beyond reproach, someone who is a good and moral person and will do the right thing even when bestowed with this tremendous power”. DM

Brij Maharaj is a geography professor at UKZN. He writes in his personal capacity.


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