The Personal is Political

By Dale T. McKinley · 9 Feb 2010

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Picture: Lawrence Jackson/White House
Picture: Lawrence Jackson/White House

Just over a month ago the legendary Dennis Brutus passed away. He became a legend for so many across South Africa and indeed the whole world not simply because of his exquisitely crafted poetry of passion and his never-ending activist commitment to justice and equality for all but precisely because he lived a life of principled consistency. The content of his public legend was umbilically linked to the character of his personal example. Simply put, Dennis practiced what he preached.

As Dennis so regularly and effectively pointed out, the same cannot be said for the vast majority of those in our national and global society who, very self-consciously and publicly, hold various positions of societal leadership and/or enjoy high levels of public attention. For these political leaders, capitalist class mandarins, assorted celebrities and the like, the idea, not to mention practice, of a principled consistency that links the personal to the public (read: political) appears to be about as foreign as intelligent debate is to the ANC Youth League. Therein lies the rub.

On the one hand, no individual human being, regardless of their public position and social status is going to be perfect when it comes to always aligning their personal principles with their public words and actions. We all make mistakes, take bad decisions and have our own contradictions. The vast majority of people understand and accept this as part of our individual and collective struggles of life and, on the whole, we are very forgiving of ourselves and others in this regard. On the other hand though, we should, and most often do, expect those who are in positions of political and societal leadership to be what they claim to be - leaders. By its very nature, such an expectation is inclusive – i.e., the (private) individual and the (public) position are not mutually exclusive, they reflect and imbibe one another in the most direct of ways.

Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk are prime examples. Both of these leaders, with widely varying degrees of success, sought to persuade the public that they were ‘men of principle’ who could be trusted to practice what they preached regardless of where, when or how they did so. Not surprisingly then, the entirety of their lives came under intense public attention and scrutiny without which, there could be no sustained examination of their claim and thus affirmation or rejection of the trust sought. The same scenario, in various forms and intensities, has played itself out with all subsequent key political leaders/figures. Indeed, it is a crucial, if unstated, part of the societal ‘deal’ that informs all meaningful claims to democratic representation and leadership.  

The main ‘problem’ arises when such public leaders/figures (alongside their organisations, closest followers and sycophants) demand from the very public that gives and sustains their status and position, a conceptual and practical separation of cause and effect, source and destination. In effect, to de-link their words and actions as individual human beings (read: ‘private lives’) from their words and actions as social and political human beings (read: ‘public lives’). It’s a ruse as old as the Magaliesberg hills and predictably, one that continues to be energetically and regularly propagated here in South Africa. Whether it’s the pseudo-sophisticat version of a Ray McCauley or the decidedly more streetwise version of a Julius Malema, it all adds up to the same false binary.

When employed by senior and well known political figures/leaders, the ruse has a great deal more social weight and impact and is most often accompanied by extensive media coverage and vigorous debate amongst the public, and for good reason. All such political figures/leaders, in one way or another, stake a large part of their claim to public leadership, and accompanying social position, on a foundation of personal principles. And so it is that when the words and/or actions of some of our political leaders throw into serious question, or appear as a fundamental violation of, the principles upon which they themselves have built and staked their leadership, we most often find ourselves in the middle of a recurring conflict about the private and the public. 

Early last year, when Deputy President, Kgalema Motlanthe’s (out of wedlock) relationship with a woman was widely covered in the media, the ANC almost immediately issued a statement decrying the “intensification of focus into the private lives of senior ANC leaders, to sow further confusion”. It went further and angrily stated that, “there can be no justification for this type of invasion of the privacy of any individual by the media …we stand by our Deputy President (and) his private life has nothing to do with the way he runs the country or how he executes his tasks as the ANC Deputy President … that is his own business.” 

More recently, the ANC responded similarly to the intense public exposure of, and debate around, President Jacob Zuma’s fathering of a child with a woman who is not one of his numerous wives. It argued that Zuma’s relationships were “a personal matter” and that, 

“As the ANC, we have always made a distinction between people's personal affairs and their public responsibilities.” The Communication Workers Union chimed in by stating that, “what happens in President Zuma’s private life is none of our business including the State … we should demand with our fists clinched high that the media stays out of the bedroom.” Zuma himself, besides claiming that he had taken “personal responsibility”, publicly requested, “that the dignity and privacy of the affected individuals in this matter be respected.”

Leaving aside a range of other important considerations in relation to the conduct of, and subsequent defence of that conduct by these political leaders and their organisations - such as unequal power and gender relations, the manipulation of ‘culture’ and risky sexual behaviour - 

the bottom line is one of principled consistency defined by collective self-respect and dignity. This cannot be differentially constructed and applied simply because of societal positionality, simply because some personal conduct is politically problematic or vice-versa. 

All public figures/leaders who want to be respected and to have their dignity affirmed must respect and dignify those who are in their lives, whether that be at the individual or collective levels. Sorry, but you can’t have it both ways. The personal is political.

Dr. McKinley is an independent writer, researcher and lecturer as well as political activist.

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