My sister was a famous model and in that capacity was invited to judge the Miss World competition at Sun City in 1995.
She asked me to accompany her as her official partner for a whole weekend of glitzy celebration and judging.
The event was interesting to me for a number of different reasons but the only aspect that might apply to a column on politics and investment risk is the astonishing effect that being treated as a celebrity can have on one’s moral and intellectual soul.
I had been living alone on a farm in the Southern Cape for 5 years when Josie invited me to accompany her to the competition.
I had spent the 1980’s involved in “the struggle” in various capacities. By 1990 I’d had enough and I left politics and my myriad comrades and friends as they got on with the business of negotiating the peace and then running the country.
Of course I had some contact from afar with previous friends, but those who had moved into the ethereal realms of Mandela’s first cabinet seemed to have been lifted body and soul out of the social networks they had previously occupied .
I would only meet again those of my old friends who had become senior politicians in government a year and a half after the Miss World competition when I returned to ‘civilisation’ to become a father and take up a permanent position as a political analyst for a Cape Town based investment broker.
At the Miss World competition we stayed in the The Palace of the Lost City at Sun City (a big step for me because we had spent the 1980’s promoting the boycott of the resort that was built in the then bantustan of Bophuthatswana).
The point I wanted to make about all of this is that from early morning to late at night the organisers of the event and the hotel treated me as if I was a celebrity. It was a peculiar but not altogether unpleasant experience. I couldn’t walk out of my room without a dapper assistant type person reaching for my arm to accompany me to waiting vehicles or parties of fabulously beautiful women sipping at drinks.
Every second of the day there was someone right beside me nodding with interest at everything I said and did. Everything was paid for. It was like being in a dream where the lights swirl around you and you are the centre of the attention of some vast organisation of doormen, waiters and compliant and beautiful people.
An air-conditioned limousine (there really is such a thing – it is not just a cliché in bad spy novels) delivered me to Jan Smuts airport for my trip back to the farm after the celebrations were finally over.
What I remember most vividly about the whole weekend was standing alone with my bag just in the entrance to the airport.
“Hello!” I might have thought shrilly to myself . “Excuse me? I’m here – where the hell is everybody?”
Two years later I met again, mostly in their formal capacities, my previous friends who had become ministers and deputy ministers, ambassadors and persons of similar august standing in society.
I was never shocked and surprised at the grandiosity and extraordinary pomposity most of them came to exhibit.
I have since sat around tables with men I had previously watched fight Apartheid police with their fists and feet and watched as they lean back from the table, eyes closed, their voices drawling as their massive new brains formulate positions that keep all of those present silent as the great man speaks.
I have sat with ambassadors at formal dinners where the guest are subjected to a reading by the said ambassador of her extremely bad poetry. We all sit in silence and most nod in awed approval.
This is a different world they inhabit.
Their whole lives, every moment of the waking day, is spent surrounded by a system that takes them extremely seriously. They travel first class and they are met at the plane by luxury vehicles driven by people trained to give the impression that this is the most precious cargo they have ever carried.
Everyone they interact with confirms the lived reality that they are, in fact, a different kind of person: cleverer, more interesting and more valuable.
There is often a faux gentleness and compassion that goes along with this kind of celebrity. When someone with whom you might once have thrown stones at the police as you dodged through billowing clouds of tear gas puts her hand on your arm and looks into your eyes and says “we really appreciate the work you are doing” you don’t screw up your face and ask “what work?” You just nod.
I believe there is something intrinsically harmful to ourselves and our society in the way we elevate our politicians. I recommend taking every opportunity to deflate the individuals, prick the bubble that we have surrounded them with.
I do not think it is inevitable that politicians, ministers or even super models become pompous wind bags but I can name very few who have escaped the corroding effects of celebrity and power.
I still see Jeremy Cronin flying with real people on the plane and chatting like a normal human being (what will we do if that stalwart ever goes over to the dark side?)
And my lovely sister Josie seems to have escaped with her humility and charm intact – although I rather suspect that is because even as whole restaurants full of New Yorkers would break into spontaneous applause as she entered in the 1980’s she never quite lost the sense that there had been some huge and embarrassing mistake – one she was just too polite and sweet to correct.
*from the poem: Heron Rex by Michael Ondaatje in The Cinnamon Peeler – Selected Poems – 1989 … my long time favourite collection of poetry.