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Op-eds

Incendiary stories that turn the world

  • Geoff
What is it about a politician’s speech that you remember afterwards? His catchy phrases? His body language? The urgency in his voice? These are often more memorable than the content. Mostly, he or she is a storyteller on a stage.
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Jan 17, 2019

Occasionally, a story crosses your path which sets you alight with hope, a tale of hero and victory. The oratory of the late gravel-voiced British Prime Minister Winston Churchill contained such magic. His ability to tell the British during World War II the kind of stories they needed to hear about themselves and their struggle inspired them to confront the most bitter odds and win. One of his most famous quotes from a rousing 1940 speech is, “… we shall fight them on the beaches…” after large tracts of Europe fell to the Nazis.

South Africa’s story during the last century was pitched to incredible heights by Nelson Mandela, a rural youngster from the Eastern Cape who rose to the summit, changed the world, and died an elderly man surrounded by loved ones. His heroic journey inspired South Africans to believe they could achieve great things – the triumph of good over evil.

It’s not just the story, but how it is told. One of the Western world’s most stirring phrases came from the immensely charismatic Martin Luther King Jr. In 1963, King inspired the black civil rights movement in America, just before being assassinated, with his “I have a dream…” speech during the protest march on Washington to end racism.

There’s always a flip side, however. Hitler was an equally charismatic storyteller, who inspired a culture of hate among millions of Europeans, which poisoned the world and continues to do so.

His noxious populism and calls for “lebensraum” tapped into the fears and resentment of vast swathes of German society. It instigated attacks on his “enemies”, whether they be Jews, Marxists, foreign powers, or whatever he decided.

South Africa’s positive story had all the charisma and heroism of the others. It inspired the world. But has it been poisoned irredeemably through corruption, factionalism, and racism?

The sight of former President Jacob Zuma dancing with President Cyril Ramaphosa before 85 000 people in Durban last week at the ANC’s election manifesto launch, brought a collective groan to many who had hoped our positive narrative was still secure.

If Zuma, in spite of the poison he has injected into the country’s life and politics, could still be lauded by so many thousands, we are seriously off track.

Yet, just as Churchill rallied the British at their darkest hour, so we wait for the South African Churchill. Time will tell if it is Ramaphosa. So far, the signs are not good. His speech at the launch was so loaded with tired clichés that the response from many was cynicism. We’ve heard it all before from president after president.

It’s not that the country is falling apart. Its people are still friendly. Unlike the proverbial man on the street in many other countries, our people still have a smile for a stranger, even if their lives are tough and disappointing.

We are familiar with the more personal stories that play themselves out regularly at ground level. “Have a good life!” was the cheery farewell one youngster called out to a relative passing by last week as he left a Glenhazel pharmacy on his way to life in Australia. He can, because he has the youth and wherewithal to do so.

Should we try to make him want to stay? A lot more than catchy phrases in a storyline are required to reboot the country for that.

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