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The power trip is a deep-seated South African tradition, with a history that runs deep through our cultural firmament.
It runs counter to our national aspiration of democracy and equal rights. But hell, if you’re the one with the power, who cares.
It doesn’t even have to be a lot of power. It can just be the illusion of power, but boy, we love to wield it!
My first heady taste of power was at the age of 15, after I was placed in charge of the surf shop when Nick, the manager, went to pay a traffic fine. I had access! So I immediately conducted an audit of the mysterious cupboard beneath the counter, where I found the petty-cash tin. No sooner had I done that, than I deployed the pepper-spray attached to the tin, and had to evacuate the shop.
Nick returned to find me coughing and weeping on the pavement outside Lifestyle Surf Shop, actively shooing prospective customers away from the teargas-riddled premises.
My next power trip came as editor of FHM magazine, when I merrily signed off on a Zambezi River cruise for 18 people, with drinks, after a Vic Falls location shoot. It was acknowledgement to the team for a job well done, but it did seem to make quite a hole in the budget. I was out of a job six months later.
Power is just so intoxicating, it’s almost impossible not to abuse it. Ask the nightclub bouncers who make you drive back home for a better shirt; the car guards who insist that you park 20 metres closer to the venue; the security guards who refuse to let you out of a complex because you don’t have “the code” from the person you’ve visited.
And this is just the make-believe power, without any basis in reality. I can only imagine what real power does to you.
I mean, imagine what it must be like being able to rally thousands of people to march at your merest word, to build or shut down entire industries, to approve or deny projects, to create or destroy as you see fit.
That amount of power must be overwhelming. I was unable to manage a photo-shoot budget with anything approaching austerity. God, I couldn’t even keep my nose out of the petty-cash cupboard, so my judging of our deeply imperfect officials and elected representatives must be tempered.
There, but for the grace of god, go I, in those Gucci loafers bought on the taxpayer’s dime. Perhaps that would be my house in Sandhurst thanks to some redeployed funds for an important tender. Maybe that could be my child, educated to the pinnacle of her potential on ill-gotten gains.
Of course, I hope not. I suspect not. I would like to believe I have acquired some kind of ethical responsibility on my “rise” from the Gqeberha surf scene to taking photos of women in bikinis in the Zambian bush.
Of course I have, surely? Right? And those lapses along the way were just that, minor slips. Almost charming little mess-ups. Perhaps, or perhaps I’m just rationalising. Perhaps the slips are always charming mischief in our interior monologue, as we write our real-time autobiographies in our minds.
“I transferred the funds between seven different accounts,” we might muse, if we were global embezzlers. “Until it reached the Cayman Islands one, and was almost untraceable. I’m such a corrupt little scamp.”
And then we’ll buy a yacht. Or take someone who seems nice on a trip to Dubai. And it will all make sense to us.
Even the unanimous worst among our ethically challenged compatriots are the heroes of their own lives. Perhaps the key to finding our lost moral compasses is to regather an appreciation for our own fallibility, our imperfections.
We are not heroes – none of us. We are antiheroes, battling inner demons, as we try to do the right thing for ourselves, for our communities and for our nation. Some of us simply fight those demons better than others.
Perhaps, we can learn from the more successful ones among us. Perhaps that might start a cycle of positivity and growth. Help us build, instead of dismantle.
Perhaps nation-building starts somewhere in the frontal lobe of our brains, where moral choices are hatched, for every one of us.
LOCAL ELECTIONS 2021