Incendiary stories that turn the world

martin luther king

Follow me to the skies! Martin Luther King Jr, with his potent oratory, led an entire movement to fight for their rights. He is shown here in Brown’s chapel, Selma, Alabama, 1965. Charismatic politicians are immensely powerful shapers of history

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 is a storyteller on a stage.

Occasionally a story crosses your path which sets you alight with hope, a tale of a hero and victory. The oratory of gravel-voiced British Prime Minister Winston Churchill contained such magic. His ability to tell the British during the Second World War the kind of stories they needed to hear about themselves and their struggle, inspired them to confront the bitterest 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 who in 1963 inspired the Black Civil Rights Movement in America, just before being assassinated, with his “I have a dream…” speech during the March on Washington for an end to racism.

There’s always a flip side, however. Hitler was an equally charismatic storyteller, who inspired a culture of hate amongst millions of Europeans which poisoned the world and continues doing so. His noxious populism and calls for “lebensraum” tapped into the fears and resentment of vast swathes of German society, instigating attacks on his ‘enemies’, whether 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 irredeemably poisoned 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, despite 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, signs are not good. His speech at the launch was so loaded with tired clichés that the response from many – not just whites – 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 catchy farewell which one youngster called out cheerfully to a relative passing by last week as he walked out of a Glenhazel pharmacy on his way to a 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.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: 

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