Whoever we vote for, they all become wretched Gollums
Right now we’re seeing more than a few of his pathetic sort squirming in the dock at various state hearings
There were 20 rings in The Lord of the Rings.
Three were for the Elves. Seven went to the Dwarves. Humans got nine. I don’t know enough about JRR Tolkien’s mythological world to know why each species got an odd number, but I imagine it was a good tie-breaker in votes about which lay to sing, when to go into the West, and so on.
Suffice it to say, the 19 rings avoided most disputes and, give or take the odd war, seemed to represent a sort of broad, jewellery-based consensus.
But the 20th ring, well, that was another story. Actually, it was the whole story. Forged in a volcano by a cross between Alice Cooper and a Victorian steam locomotive, it was the physical manifestation of absolute power.
I don’t know if Tolkien’s trilogy was written in part as a metaphor about power, but as a symbol of political hubris and nemesis, the One Ring of Power is pretty solid.For starters, there’s the way everyone thinks they’ll use it for good.
And then there’s the part where it corrupts everyone it touches.
None of its victims, however, are more pathetic than Gollum. He is corruption made flesh, a wretched slave of power, sucked dry but cruelly kept alive in a sort of addict’s purgatory, craving his “precious” with every fibre of his withered being and willing to risk everything just to touch it for a few minutes.
Right now we’re seeing more than a few Gollums in SA, squirming in the dock at various state hearings.
All those dragged into the light so far are reviled by honest South Africans. And yet, long ago, they were human. Long ago, many of them were young and idealistic. Some were terribly brave. A few were noble. Like the naïve rulers of Middle Earth, they thought that power would allow them to usher in a golden age. And, like those doomed characters, they believed they were immune to power’s terrible side-effects.
Which is how we find ourselves here, in a country haunted by disgrace, where fierce activists and clear-eyed negotiators of 30 years ago are bug-eyed, strung-out bottom feeders. Too many of those who fought for freedom have been enslaved by power, and, unable to pull away from its monstrous energies, they have had their humanity shrivelled, their agency withered, and their good hearts burnt to ash.No soul can survive prolonged exposure to power. We know this. And yet when some sordid new detail of state capture is revealed, we still react with surprise and outrage. Why?
The first possibility is that we keep forgetting that power corrupts. I must say I find this unlikely, even for a country that keeps sticking forks into the power outlet. Which leaves another explanation: that we are deliberately denying the corrupting nature of power to save ourselves from the annoying duty of becoming active citizens.
In our highly automated, increasingly passive world, in which complex systems work day and night as if by magic, it is perhaps inevitable that we would want power to tick along as quietly, efficiently and unchangingly as, say, Netflix.
Certainly, I think many voters would confess to a sort of grudge-purchase mentality when it comes to voting: it’s something you do every so often in the hope of electing a party that will just do the job well, forever, so you don’t have to vote again.
But this isn’t how democracy works. It is a system always on the edge of collapse; a home built on the edge of a bog out of straw, mud, timber and thatch. If it’s not collapsing or sliding down the slope, it’s catching fire. Parts of it are always dropping off and needing to be replaced.That’s because people change. People fail. And people who stay too close to power for too long begin to rot.
We understood this as children when we read about the wretched Gollum. Now we need to remember it as adults reading about the wretched Zuptas.
We need to remember that when we vote for anyone, we are thrusting the One Ring at them and that, with absolute certainty, they will be corrupted by it if they keep it for too long.
We know why timber rots. When it does, we don’t hold commissions of inquiry and ask: “How could this happen?” We simply remove the rot and replace it with new timber that we know will also rot in time.
We know why people rot. So let us calmly replace them with new people. But above all, let us stop looking for leaders who will save us from unchecked power, and let us finally understand that we are the ones who must save our leaders – humble hobbits just like us – from the ravages of power.