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Opinionista

We risk a fatal error when we study the example of dead heroes

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Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

Seeking models of leadership, we hang on to the words and ways of people who died many years ago and assume they would not have changed their minds or habits over the years.

Raymond Suttner’s series on leadership is insightful and ought to be required reading for anyone who wants a sense of the earliest drivers, incentives, motivations, beliefs and values of ANC leaders past and present. 

In his most recent piece, on the late Chris Hani, Suttner explains the importance of referencing “heroic figures” to provide “a model of conduct, of service and leadership that others should seek to emulate, to learn qualities that present and later generations needed and still need to try to acquire – then and now”.

“We should concentrate on learning and popularising what there is in the lives of Hani and others that can be applied to our own work and activities, wherever we are located… He also knew, like Nelson Mandela as well, that there was a time for fighting and a time for peace. He would never have used militaristic songs and violence in a time of peace and especially not against peaceful protesters.”

These passages, and the entire body of Suttner’s work, point to the value that can be had from studying past leaders and the pasts of leaders. There are two additional points that may be added; one philosophical, the other historical. I may have missed them in the texts, but I should emphasise them here, particularly because no political leader contests for office with the promise to be corrupt, to carry their ethics in a colander, to batter the heads of political opponents with glass jugs, or allow the state to be hollowed out by semi-organised criminal groups.

Always leave room for the irrationalities

My philosophical contribution is twofold. The first I draw from Louis Antoine Léon de Saint-Just, a Jacobin leader during the French Revolution. In his writings, Saint-Just said nobody rules without guilt. The second I take from the speech by Friedrich Engels at the grave of Karl Marx. It is foolish, Engels, explained, to believe that the beliefs and values we hold dear in our youth will remain intact later in life. In short, people change over time. In other words, people can, and do, necessarily change. Such changes occur as material conditions change or as new evidence emerges.

In application, a problem arises when we assume the eternal validity of concepts, theories, beliefs or values, even when evidence does not support them. This is the likely basis for the claim by the former British economist Alfred Marshall (1842-1924) that each generation should solve the problems of its time with the intellectual instruments available at the time. Marshall’s textbook, Principles of Economics, dominated much of the early 20th century in the way Paul Samuelson’s Economics dominated the second half of the century. 

There is a video clip online in which Steve Biko (correctly) states that black people have to mine and beneficiate minerals for themselves, and presumably not rely on the West or non-Africans. Biko makes specific reference to asbestos. It’s safe to assume that the clip was made in the 1970s, but we have since learnt that long-term exposure to asbestos fibres can cause inflammation, scarring and genetic damage. Mesothelioma, a rare and aggressive cancer (and other forms of cancer) is almost exclusively caused by exposure to asbestos. It is safe to say that with access to this new information, Biko may have changed his mind.

The point is that we hang onto the words and ways of people who may have died many years ago, and assume they would not have changed their minds or habits over the years. In his autobiography, historian Eric Hobsbawm recalls how, after the US dropped nuclear bombs on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, philosopher Bertrand Russell assumed that the nuclear monopoly of the US would be temporary. Russell thought it a good idea that the US should prepare for a pre-emptive attack on Moscow, to prevent the Soviet Union from embarking on world domination and in the process destroy the communist regime.

Russell swore by the Western dogma of “better dead than red” while “in practice”, Hobsbawm explained, “other peoples were the only ones to whom this literally senseless slogan was applied”. If it had any sense it meant that “if it should so happen” millions of people the world over “should commit suicide rather than live under a communist government” [or] that “they should be killed by the arms of the Free World to prevent this awful contingency”.

Fortunately, Hobsbawm said, “nobody listened to Russell”, who in any case changed his mind when both superpowers had the capacity to destroy each other, thus turning world war into global suicide. The point, I guess, is to always leave room for change, and in the case of South Africa (as we have seen over the past quarter century), for inducements and the seductiveness of pecuniary gain. This brings us to the historical contribution.

The dead cannot defend or explain themselves

It should be self-evident that the dead are, well, dead, and all we may have left of them are the things they may have said or done decades ago. The problem arises, of course, if we assume that the person who lived in, say, the 1970s has been unaffected by social or historical changes over time. So we hitch our wagon to a horse that hasn’t moved in decades. We romanticise or defang past figures and make the fatal error that “good people” cannot be “bad” and “bad people” cannot be good – that these categories are fixed. There are, I hasten to add, historical figures who were cruel beyond any doubt and impossible to rehabilitate: Hitler, Mussolini, Mao, Pol Pot, Stalin and Adi Amin will necessarily, and rightfully, remain the cruel scum that they were.

But if we leave room for change, and we assume – as well we should – that new information can change people, then we have to account for the likelihood that every one of our heroes of the 20th century may have changed over the past two or three decades.

If, for instance, we take ANC leaders in 1993/94, how many of them actually campaigned on the promise of pit latrines or State Capture? There was a time when Julius Malema said he would die for Jacob Zuma. He changed his mind. Which is perfectly acceptable. People learn, they change. There was a time when Brian Molefe was held up as a shining star in the ANC galaxy. He changed. We could go on and on, and it should be clear by now that we have to leave room for change (intellectually) and make space for change (across time). 

Unless, of course, we consider any one among Thomas Sankara, Frantz Fanon (who sought assistance from the CIA), Antonio Gramsci (who saw value in Mussolini’s fascism) Albert Luthuli, Steve Biko or Chris Hani as two-dimensional cutouts, when in fact they were dynamic intellectuals who drew on fresh ideas and evidence and who, as Suttner suggested, knew there was a time for fighting and a time for peace.

This, I will say as a parting shot, is the essence of knowledge production. And to borrow from one of my old mentors: theories, beliefs and values are always for someone, for some purpose. They rise in power and prominence, and they fall. With this, I present one single contribution to the marvellous work on leadership produced by Suttner. DM

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