Whenever we consider a legend passing on, we tend to heap praise on them while trying to deal with our shock that even the greatest must die.
It’s natural. But wouldn’t it be brilliant if we could examine their lives as closely as possible to distil their best qualities and aim to emulate them? Surely if a leader or two of ours could emulate the great Muhammad Ali, our country would be far better off. Not for what he achieved in the ring, no – although he would help to resuscitate a sport that has lost all its glamour.
Our country needs the big man in the real world. The Champ was a man of principle. For him, wrong was wrong. It didn’t matter who made the error. Ali would let him know in no uncertain terms that he was wrong. There is a pre-fight interview he had with Ernie Terrell who kept on using his old name, Cassius Clay. The Champ insisted on being addressed by his new name: “You will say my name, you will stand in the centre of that ring and announce it.” Imagine if we got leaked reports of a man named Cyril standing up in an NEC meeting and saying, loud and clear, “You are wrong Mr President, the people deserve better, you will stand on that podium in parliament and tell them, ‘I erred … I abused state funds and I know it.'”
It is common knowledge by now that Ali declared long before he was a champion that he was the greatest. He even went as far as saying “I’m not the greatest, I’m the double greatest.” That’s called dreaming. But dreaming with a purpose, with a vision. His was not just a dream conjured up while he slept; it was a waking dream with a desired outcome – one that drove him. We have stopped dreaming as a people. We stopped just after we bought into the new South Africa, but without a true vision and no purpose.
We have single-handedly gone about getting rid of all the principled men and women who have dared to remind us that we are deviating from the script that guarantees greatness. Archbishop Desmond Tutu was called senile when he warned us about the wisdom (or lack thereof) in electing the current president. We are now at a point where we must constantly hold our collective breath that the rand doesn’t take a nose-dive again – or that we’re not woken up by a breaking news SMS that there has been an illogical Cabinet reshuffle at midnight again. Our eye is forever on the horizon, but instead of waiting for that sun to break through the clouds, we are willing the storm to stay away. “No credit downgrade please!”
Ali was the definition of sacrifice. The current South African narrative frowns upon that.
“What’s in it for me?” our leaders are always asking. Ali, when drafted into the US army to go and fight in Vietnam, decided that he would rather lose his boxing licence than go against the principles he held dear.
“I have no grudge against the people of Vietnam; they’ve never called me a nigger, they didn’t strip me of my nationality…”
He faced jail time and stood to lose millions of dollars for that – which he did.
Today our country needs men and women willing to sacrifice the comforts of guaranteed positions in government and stand up to be counted. We need men and women who will say that government money will not be stolen on their watch and who refuse to be led by leaders of questionable integrity.
Ali’s greatest asset was that of speaking truth to power. In a world where being liked has become a measure of people’s greatness, The Greatest couldn’t be bothered with niceties. Being liked by compromising his beliefs, his convictions, was not a part of his agenda. When he converted to Islam, it could have been the end of him in a popularity contest. Despite the ridicule and derision, he converted, and today we respect him more for it.
We have a string of leaders who could have stood up and spoken their minds when it mattered. Nothing is as useless and irritating as a leader who, when he’s no longer in power shouts ,”Hey, wrong is wrong!”
The truth, in most cases, is powerful only when uttered at the right time. Ali did not say, “I could have chosen not to go fight in Vietnam.” He said, “I ain’t going,” right at the height of the war, in the prime of his boxing career, when he stood to lose everything. And that won our hearts and ultimately the hearts of all the people who hated him at the time. Because years later, most of them came to realise how brutally wrong the war had been from the outset.
It is this sort of courage, currently displayed by Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, that this country needs. Courage in the face of a real fear of “losing out”, of being excluded and left out in the cold – just as The Greatest was for three and a half years – the best fighting years of his life. The fear of losing out only made him more determined.
Zwelinzima Vavi, Julius Malema, Matthews Phosa, Trevor Manuel, Ronnie Kasrils, Saki Macozoma, Terror Lakota – the list is endless. All these leaders lack the courage of an Ali. Where was all their courage to stand up when they still had the power? Instead, look at them now, moaning from the outside of power – too late – claiming they have all the answers.
The behemoth that is the ruling party will require the courage of Ali to steer it back on course – the kind of courage Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas displayed when he confirmed he was indeed offered the finance minister post by that family that’s running the affairs of the country while the president is busy elsewhere. That’s the kind of courage that changes history.
You’re probably sitting there and thinking: this is just a dream, it’s impossible. It won’t happen.
Let me leave you, then, with this Ali quote: “Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given, than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.”
Disclaimer: Majoko writes in his personal capacity and his views are his own, not representative of The Citizen or the Caxton Group.