Joyce McMillan: Self-interest subverts leadership

Those pulling the strings in political circles are probably the only ones who can afford to smile. Picture: AFP
Those pulling the strings in political circles are probably the only ones who can afford to smile. Picture: AFP
Share this article
Have your say

This is the image which perfectly encapsulates all that is wrong with our political elite and their priorities, writes Joyce McMillan

It was one of those moments that, once seen, is never likely to be forgotten. The vast FNB stadium in Johannesburg packed to the roof, the brilliant colours of South Africa’s “rainbow” flag, the rain belting down; and on the podium, giving his memorial tribute to the great Nelson Mandela, America’s first black President, Barack Obama, who says that it was the story of Mandela’s struggle, back in the 1980s, that first aroused his interest in politics, and made him aware of his own responsibility to try to further the ideals of justice and human equality for which Mandela stood.

It was a fine speech, not afraid to point out the hypocrisy of those who now claim political kinship with Mandela, but who continue to resist the very ideas for which he fought. The cheering crowd loved it; and it felt, briefly, as though we were watching a vital moment in world politics, the moment when the leadership of the global struggle for justice that Mandela symbolised for so long might pass from political father to son.

Yet as the applause faded, it became increasingly tempting – as so many were tempted, this week – to see the true reflection of current global politics not in President Obama’s fine speech, but in the image of the president and David Cameron leaning in to take part in a “selfie” mobile phone portrait being snapped in the stands by Denmark’s current prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt.

For everywhere we look across the planet, in these dying days of 2013, it seems that what we see is not political leadership but political failure. The essential function of politics is to set up and maintain institutions which will protect people from brute force, both physical and economic, and create an arena in which they can live peaceful lives, governed by just laws fairly administered; if it fails in this function – as South Africa’s apartheid state so conspicuously failed – then it invites rebellion, if not outright revolution. Mandela was a revolutionary; and as he said in his great Rivonia trial speech of 1964, he was inspired not only by anger against the apartheid state, but by the ideal of a better South Africa, for which he was prepared to die.

Yet for what ideal, one has to ask, are most of today’s world leaders striving, as they gather at events like Mandela’s funeral? Faced with the colossal challenge of global warming, they have essentially done nothing. Faced with the catastrophic collapse of an overheated financial system which had lost all relationship with economic reality, they have bailed out those responsible for the disaster, and started to bear down on the real earnings and benefits of their people in order to pay the bill. They stand by while massive corporate power buys up politicians and parties through donations and consultancies, and marginalises ordinary voters from any real influence over the representatives who are supposed to serve them. And they are silent while a generation of “experts” in matters financial insult and downgrade elected governments that try to invest in the welfare of their people, dismissing basic social goods – free health care and education, decent pensions – as mere electoral “bribes” dished out by profligate politicians for their own benefit.

These are political “leaders”, in other words, who have long since given up any effort to lead. The best of them – Barack Obama among them – are desperately trying to mitigate the effects of this huge increase in corporate power on the most vulnerable; others, like the present UK government, are unapologetic front-men for global corporate interests, in everything from health care to energy policy.

Nelson Mandela might have been able to tell them, though, that the secret of progressive political change is not about pleading with the powerful to allow you to be a little nicer to the powerless; but about mobilising a people to fight for its rights and its dignity, until it can no longer be resisted. It is the power of a mobilised people that gives political leaders the power, in turn, to resist the insolence of the wealthy, and to set up the institutions and financial systems which make democratic governance possible. It happened once, at global level, in the 1940s, when a great generation of economists set up the well-regulated systems that led to the long boom of 1945-75, and the rising prosperity of ordinary workers across the West. And we will know that the next leader of Mandela’s stature has arrived when he or she rouses up the people of a whole region of this planet, to say that enough corporate greed and inequity is enough; and that they will support their leaders in whatever action is necessary to reclaim the proper powers of government, and to start acting once again in the interests of voters and their welfare.

And in the meantime, the “selfie” image of the three leaders grinning into the lens catches the imagination, because it reminds us how far political leadership has become confused with the increasingly tight social interaction among a small global elite – well represented in the FNB stadium on Tuesday – that shares not only fame but power, and what is to most of us unimaginable wealth. It is our fate to live in an age when most of our supposed leaders prefer to represent that elite to us – persuading us to vote for this pension cut, and that austerity package – rather than to fight for us against the greed and arrogance of the elite.

Even as an old man, though, I think I know which side of that struggle Nelson Mandela would have been on. And perhaps, somewhere on the planet, this week’s memorial service, and the words spoken there, will have inspired the man or woman who will rediscover for us the meaning of democratic politics; a leader pledged to resist the insolence of existing power, and to fight as Mandela did, against all the odds, for the ideal of a fairer and better world in which past crimes against humanity can eventually be forgiven, and in which we can all once again look to the future not with dread, but with hope.