If you want to understand a person’s character, listen to their music; but if you want to understand the depth of her mind, visit her library.
A personal library reflects the type of literature that interests you. Thus, it can provide insight into the ideas that shaped or influenced a person’s mind.
However, personal libraries can also be deceiving. We know people who buy books to decorate their homes, to show their friends, but not to read them. Such people crave the prestige that comes with books. Still, they’re lazy.
The truth is that reading and socializing don’t mix. Reading requires self-discipline and a love of solitude.
In the meantime, real politics is and should be a competition of ideas for shaping society. Therefore, politicians should be expected to write books and articles to share their ideas and propose alternatives to the status quo.
In developed societies, especially Western and Eastern societies, politicians publish their books to share their ideas even before contesting power. From his or her books, society can decipher the ideas and understand what a politician stands for.
However, in South Africa we have neither a reading culture nor an ideas competition as an integral part of our political system. We are, above all, a cult of personality.
Meanwhile, the development of South Africa has seen four different forms or eras of government – colonial, union, apartheid and democratic governments. In those eras, there were influential characters who embody those eras.
In the colonial government it was Cecil John Rhodes, while in the Union government it was Jan Smuts. While Hendrik Verwoerd embodied apartheid, Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki are by far the key figures who shaped our democratic dispensation.
Likewise, the future of our politics, be it a break with or a continuation of liberation politics, seems determined to be shaped by three characters, namely John Steenhuisen, Julius Malema and Herman Mashaba.
Let’s start from the beginning to examine the books that have shaped the minds of the politicians of our eras.
Colonialist Cecil John Rhodes was driven into politics by his desire to influence the building of railroads and roads to transport minerals from mines to ports. But he recognized that in order to gain access to the British aristocracy, which would be crucial to validating his political ambitions, he needed a qualification from a respected institution. So he entered Oxford University. There he met his intellectual godfather, John Ruskin, and read Winwood Reades The Martyrdom of Man.
But the book that had a major impact on his ambition to build an empire, according to Sarah Gertrude Millin, was that of his biographer Edward Gibbon Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Thus Rhodes saw England as the successor to the Roman Empire.
Rhodes wasn’t allergic to books. He had a collection of over a thousand books, including “250 volumes of history, 130 volumes of biographies, 175 volumes on Africa, 130 books falling under classics, 80 under social sciences, 70 under travel, 60 under federation and constitutional government, and 50 under geography.” and 25 novels.” The list goes on. But the library was, as Millin puts it, “not a reader but a conscious empire-maker.”
The next phase in the SA’s development was the formation of the Union government in 1910, of which Jan Christian Smuts was a key figure. Smuts is perhaps the greatest intellectual South Africa has ever produced. His book holism and evolution recognized him as the “intellectual father” of holistic philosophy, whose central thesis is “that the whole is more than the sum of its parts”.
In his Jan Smuts: Don’t be afraid of size, Richard Steyn explains that Smuts kept, among other things, those of Immanuel Kant in his saddlebag Critique of Pure Reason during the Anglo-Boer War and “retired to his tent at night to read”. smuts’ book, Walt Whitman: A Study in the Evolution of Personality also gives an insight into the books that influenced him.
A visit to the Smuts Museum in Irene, Pretoria will take you into a personal library of more than 2,000 books on war, peace, philosophy, religion, etc., all of which he has read.
Read A century of injustice and you’ll appreciate the depth of Smuts’ reflective mind. Released on the eve of the Anglo-Boer War, A century of injustice is a powerful African manifesto on the level of Marx and Engels. Communist Manifesto.
Smuts’ intellectual genius was respected around the world and he was given the honor of writing the preamble to the United Nations Charter. But Mandela later said of Smuts’ hypocrisy: “It was more important to me that he helped found the League of Nations and promoted liberty around the world than the fact that he had suppressed liberty at home.” We do find consolation, however in Smuts’s letter to Alfred Milner, for finally “history writes the word reconciliation over all their quarrels”.
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The epitome of apartheid, Henrik Verwoerd was a highly educated man, doctorate in psychology and postdoctoral fellow in Germany. It is clear from the speeches he gave that his belief in the social engineering of apartheid was rooted in his psychological background.
However, it is not far-fetched to assume that he was a secret admirer of Francis Galton’s eugenics – a theory popularized in Nazi Germany and used to advocate racial hygiene or racial purity – the non-mixing of the “superior” and “inferior” racial groups . The white supremacists were inspired by eugenics.
The next era in our country’s development was the democratic breakthrough in 1994, led by Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. Where exactly did Nelson Mandela get the inspiration – even in the face of death in the Rivonia trial – to stand firm and declare that he was “prepared to die”? Fidel Castro’s “History Will Acquit Me” speech and literature praising man for having an “Article of Faith” inspired him.
Mandela read Shakespeare on Robben Island Julius Caesar and put his signature to the much-quoted passage: “Cowards die many times before they die; The brave taste death only once.” It was here that he got his inspiration to continue the fight.
However, it is from him main work, Long way to freedomthat we have the privilege of taking a mental walk with him, appreciating the difficult path he has walked and interacting with his ideas.
Thabo Mbeki was a member of the South African Communist Party when it was still an intellectual center of the left. But after reading Marx The capital More than once, Mbeki transcended Marxist dogma and left the party. Mbeki absorbed literature outside of his political ideology and this enabled him to be more of a pragmatist than an ideologue.
However, it is clear from Mbeki’s writings that he is learned. Most of Mbeki’s writings are punctuated by a quote from a poet, philosopher or literary scholar, giving us a snapshot of the ideas that came to his mind. From William B. Yeats, David Hume, William Shakespeare to Pixley Seme etc., South African audiences left no doubt as to Mbeki’s fondness for books.
But the old man owes the South African readers a volume of his own philosophy and ideas. Those close to him suggest that he might want to publish his book posthumously because his hubris doesn’t take criticism while he’s still alive.
Then contemporary politicians appear and – do they read? They, too, must be judged by the books they have written and the ideas they have espoused.
Of the three politicians we mentioned earlier – John Steenhuisen, Julius Malema and Herman Mashaba – only the leader of ActionSA left us two books from which we can read his thoughts. Mashaba Capitalist Crusader gives insights into a convinced capitalist.
Meanwhile, he derived the name of his hair products business from John Howard Griffin’s book entitled Black like me — an account of race relations in America. In fact, black consciousness was at its peak when Mashaba founded his company in the 1980s, and like a true businessman, he rode the wave of the moment.
Mashaba’s Autobiography, black like you, is both a tale of the triumph of tenacity over adversity and someone who wears a deep-seated black stripe of consciousness. However, what you won’t miss in either of his books is that Mashaba is a devoted and shameless capitalist. While he does share what he reads on social media platforms, albeit rarely, it would make a better impression if the intervals were shorter.
EFF President Julius Malema speaks more than he writes. When he’s not berating the public with ANC gossip at his media briefings, Malema would rather direct “huge curses” at anyone he disagrees with than read a book. You almost never get a chance to meet him in a bookshop instead of the Mekete Shebeen in Polokwane or a pub on Vilakazi Street in Soweto.
Nevertheless, through his speeches we get the opportunity to engage with his ideas. While it is possible to find a phrase by Frantz Fanon, Amilcar Cabral or Vladimir Lenin in some of Malema’s speeches, credit should be given to his friend Floyd Shivambu, who took responsibility for bringing a certain intellectual flair to the EFF’s socialist-nationalist rhetoric to rent.
The real Malema is not a man of the book; He is a gregarious person who envisions a cult for himself. In 2019, South Africans witnessed a spectacle as EFF supporters knelt before Malema and sang hymns and praises to him reminiscent of the Adolf Hitler cult.
In the EFF, everyone must agree with the supreme commander or be marginalized. Ask Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, Godrich Gardee or Musa Novela at Joburg Council. However, it is the cult of personality combined with Malema’s violent rhetoric, reminiscent of fascism, that makes us wonder how much of Hitler’s my fight has the CIC consumed?
Meanwhile, there is no evidence that John Steenhuisen, the DA leader, is reading. Nor does he pretend to be an intellectual. His lack of a college degree could be his Achilles’ heel. Nonetheless, he remains one of the most eloquent and entertaining speakers in Parliament.
Exactly which ideas influence his policies, however, remains a guess; for apart from a sentence or two from some of Helen Suzman’s famous statements, he hardly ever quotes from a book. While we may not know what he stands for, we do know that the goddess of prosecution – Helen Zille – is a supporter of Karl Popper The open society and its enemies. And of course the son has to speak his mother’s language.
The question we need to think about is what ideas will shape South Africa’s future. Put another way, which society would you like to live in as a citizen: Mashaba’s capitalism, Malema’s socialism, Steenhuisen’s open society, or a combination of all? You decide. DM