Beware the crude shepherd who divides the lions and the sheep at poll time
As the elections loom, look out for us-versus-them rhetoric, the crude binaries trumpeted by politicians
A lion, I keep being told, does not lose sleep over the opinions of sheep.
Sometimes this slogan is a snappy retort by an EFF supporter on Twitter. Sometimes it’s a creaky coup de grâce by an elderly South African Trump supporter on Facebook. And sometimes it’s just drifting around between social media, pinned to the ether by someone who thinks it sounds intelligent.
I understand why one might throw around a bit of trite nonsense like this. After all, I like intellectually lazy metaphorical zingers as much as the next pedlar of hot takes. But the tricky thing with a metaphor is that you have to run it through to its logical conclusion so that you don’t end up looking like a rube.
Consider, for example, a cartoon doing the rounds, showing a meteor roaring towards a huddle of oblivious dinosaurs. The dinosaurs are labelled “The Republican Party” and the meteor is Democrat congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. See, she’s going to obliterate all the dinosaurs in the GOP – except, as far as I understand the events of 65 million years ago, the meteor also got vaporised, and, after a prolonged nuclear winter, the planet was inherited by a third party. So in this metaphor are mammals ... China? Who knows? Certainly not the person who put the cartoon together.
Which brings me back to those dismissive lions.
Now, I think most people would agree that the slogan is literally true: lions, it’s fair to say, do not lose sleep over the opinions of sheep. For starters, they don’t know the opinions of sheep, mainly because sheep are notoriously cliquey and tend to speak only to other sheep. But mostly lions aren’t losing sleep over sheepish notions because they’ve got much, much more pressing concerns; the sort that come with clinging to a life of endless, grinding subsistence. And if they struggle to sleep, it is because their bedroom is a yapping, whining, fangy hell of hyenas. Suffice it to say that it is not nice to be a lion. Not ever.
The people brandishing the slogan at their political foes have naturally aligned themselves with the lions. We are taught that lions are noble. For some reason we even insist on calling them the “king of the jungle”, although anyone who has ever been into an actual jungle will know that the king of the jungle is mould. Sheep, on the other hand, have got a reputation for being passive and rather ridiculous, presumably because they don’t murder anything with their teeth. If we are going to pick sides, it seems sensible to be a lion and not a sheep.
And yet, just like in the meteor cartoon, the metaphor fails. Because wherever lions and sheep live side by side, a third party rules them both: the owner of the sheep, gazing at the lion through the sights of a high-powered rifle. Both lion and sheep live or die depending on the needs of the shepherd. Both are simply assets or liabilities in a vast ledger that exists beyond their small horizons.
In this country, we call those shepherds “politicians”.
We all know how they farm us or hunt us: that doesn’t need repeating right now. But I think it’s worth remembering, as the countdown to the election drops from months into weeks, how they divide us; how they herd us through the dipping pen until we’re drenched with self-righteousness and anger; how they leave out poisoned meat for us to swallow.
But that’s where I stop extending the metaphor, because we’re not cartoonish caricatures of animals. We are complex, flawed, subtle, resilient people; blighted with a vastly incompetent and partially criminal government, blessed with extraordinary resources, burdened by grief and suspicion, dragged onwards by hope.
We should not lose sleep over the opinions of our compatriots, especially none that have arrived via social media, that open sewer that collects the worst of ourselves. But it would also be a mistake to be seduced by the crude binaries being trumpeted by the politicians.
Unfortunately, us-versus-them rhetoric is primitive, which can give it the veneer of some old-fashioned, “common sense” truth. We also seem to be fatally susceptible to wild claims: tell South Africans you’re going to fix potholes and they’ll refuse to vote for you, but promise them nirvana and a jetpack and they’re yours.
This is a pity, because right now we don’t need lions or sheep or nirvana or jetpacks. We just need someone who knows how to keep the lights on.
And in case you were wondering, no, that’s not a metaphor.