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South Africa needs a new generation of political heroes

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Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African ambassador to Ireland.

Lately, I have been thinking about how we have lost our political heroes in South Africa. When I became an MP in 1994, we were spoiled for choice, with so many giants of the Struggle in Parliament. Although not without faults, they largely represented the best of humanity.

I recently saw a clip on social media of the actress Jennifer Garner receiving a call from Julie Andrews (of Sound of Music fame). Garner was nearly in tears when she realised who the surprise caller was and kept repeating that Andrews was her hero.

This made me think back to 2003 when Nelson Mandela visited Ireland to attend the
 Special Olympics. As the South African ambassador at the time, it was my job to assist with the hundreds of requests to meet him.

One afternoon, I bumped into the actor Pierce Brosnan, who was having tea in the lobby of the hotel where Mandela was staying. He asked if it was possible to be introduced to Mandela. I think I whispered something pathetic like: “Anything, Mr Bond, I mean, Mr Brosnan.” (In my defence, show me a woman who ever said no to 007…) Regaining my composure, and knowing that Madiba was about to ride down from his suite, I asked “Mr Bond” to wait near the lifts. Then, I rushed over to warn Zelda la Grange that he was there and wanted to meet Madiba.

The security detachment held the lift while La Grange said to Madiba: “Khulu, Pierce Brosnan is out here to meet you.”

Madiba frowned. “Who?” he asked. “Pierce Brosnan,” La Grange repeated.
 Madiba’s frown deepened. “What is he famous for?” he asked. “He is an actor. He played James Bond,” Zelda responded.
 Madiba just shook his head. I suddenly realised that all the Bond movies were made while Madiba was in jail and movie nights would of course not have been a regular thing on Robben Island.

“Khulu, can you please just greet him?” La Grange asked, slightly exasperated. “Of course!” Madiba responded as he followed me to where Brosnan was standing. Apprehensively, I introduced them. Madiba shook Brosnan’s hand warmly and with his magical smile said: “Ah, Mr Brosnan, what a real, real honour to meet you at last.” Naturally, Brosnan just beamed.

Later that evening at the stadium where a massive welcome was held, we were watching proceedings on TV in a suite waiting for Madiba to go onstage. When Brosnan appeared on screen to loud applause, Madiba sat up. “Hey,” he said to Cyril Ramaphosa, next to him, “I met that fellow today!
 Is he famous?”

Ramaphosa was speechless for a few moments and then burst out laughing. He then explained to Madiba, who had a good chuckle.

Later, Brosnan joined a few of my guests in a suite in the stadium. Muhammad Ali, who was in the suite next to ours, heard that Brosnan was there and sent a message that he would like to meet him. Brosnan was thrilled and was next door faster than you could say 007. An hour or so later, he was back with a tablecloth rolled up under his arm. Muhammad had drawn a little stick figure in a boxing ring on a tablecloth and signed it for Brosnan, who proudly displayed it to everyone.

The next day as we left the hotel, Madiba greeted a few children. He picked up a little girl with Down syndrome and said softly to her. “You are so nice,” she said, before whispering something in his ear which made him laugh out loud.

In the car, I asked Madiba what she had said. He replied: “She said that I was much nicer than Arnie [Arnold Schwarzenegger], who she had met earlier.” He started to laugh again. “She is my hero.”

Lately, I have been thinking about how we have lost our political heroes in South Africa. When I became an MP in 1994, we were spoiled for choice, with so many giants of the Struggle in Parliament. Although not without faults, they largely represented the best of humanity. They were principled, moral, filled with wisdom, humble and committed to delivering justice to South Africa.

Sadly, almost all of them have passed away and it seems no one has been able to fill their shoes. Of course, those with radical rhetoric have huge followings, but time and time again they are exposed as having feet of clay.  Today there is no politician that I look up to or that I would want my children or grandchildren to emulate. I believe that this, together with the lack of service delivery and corruption, is why so many South Africans have lost hope in the future.

We all need heroes. Even famous people like Pierce Brosnan, Muhammad Ali, Jennifer Garner and, yes, even Madiba himself, need people who they can look up to.

As a nation, we also need political heroes.

There will never again be a hero like Nelson Mandela, but perhaps if we demand (and vote for) better politicians there might again be leaders who inspire us to be courageous, principled and … nicer than Arnie! DM

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  • John P says:

    That is probably the best thing I have ever read from you in the pages of this esteemed journal. As we get older we become more cynical and heroes are hard to find. South Africa desperately needs a great leader and I do not see one anywhere in our current political offerings. We seem to have only a choice of the greedy, the self serving and the power hungry. My vote goes to the DA, not because they are a golden choice, not even because I have always voted for them or their predecessors but because they are the least poor of the choices on offer.

  • Ben Harper says:

    Well your “struggle heroes” all turned out to be power hungry thieves and liars, every single one of them, without exception

  • Agf Agf says:

    There were not many like Madiba. A very nice article about some of your memories.

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