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Martin Hesp: Can he inspire us to stand up to our own oppression?

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: December 07, 2013


Martin Hesp

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Sometimes when you are given free rein to write about anything you want, something happens that you can't ignore – which is why I start this column by mentioning Nelson Mandela.

And that's difficult because who cares what I – a little journalist hardly anyone has ever heard of, living in a peaceful, un-newsworthy, corner of the world – think about the passing of the great and influential man?

As I write these words I've just seen a tweet pop up on my screen from another news organisation that says: "Really fascinating – Somerset's part in the end of apartheid."

You see what I mean… Somehow the media's determination to connect its own patch with important events elsewhere comes across as… Well, the word is pathetic.

What I can do is to say: I wish we had some politicians who had even a smidgen of Mr Mandela's drive, passion, honesty, dignity, kindliness, thoughtfulness, intelligence and, above all else, humanity.

Instead we have buffoons who liken society to a cornflake packet in which only the bright ones rise to the top.

I never write about Boris Johnson normally because I have known his family for 40 years and do not want to harm the relationship I have with one member of the clan who is a dear friend.

But in this one instance – in the wake of Mandela's passing and being forced to compare his life with our own sorry folk of influence – the chasm of difference is almost too much to bear.

What young Johnson said about greed being good and the "haves" owning a god-given right to rule supreme over the "have-nots" was the very antithesis of everything Mr Mandela stood for. Indeed, it painted a picture of a kind of apartheid in which one class of citizen has more rights than another.

Life is not a cornflake packet – it is a multilayered mass of impossible complexity. In our very British sense, this means that a bright person who has the right set of circumstances to start them off in life has a massive head-start on a bright person born in a slum.

Eton, Oxbridge and the Bullingdon Club have nothing whatsoever to do with the shaking of cornflake packets, or fair playing fields, or anything else that could be described – as Mr Johnson and his ilk would love to portray – as nature choosing the strongest and fittest.

I have known extremely savvy, intelligent people who have been as well-educated as the fossil that sits on my desk as a paperweight. One of these was a forester, another was a lorry driver. Both had more natural understanding, native intelligence, weight of character and charisma than all the cabinet ministers I've met and interviewed put together. Had Mr Johnson's shake of the cornflake packet put them into Eton, Oxbridge and the Bullingdon Club, both could easily have been prime ministers.

But that was never going to happen, mainly because both men were simply working too hard at the daily drudge to feed their families. Added to that was another reality that is more difficult to put into words – both came from quiet, working-class, rural families which, typical of their kind, fostered no culture of ambition. They were, wisely some would say, content with their lot in life. They were not inclined to shaft other people in reaching out for more.

The idea that some greedy money-grabbing banker is somehow a better, more important, more worthy, member of society than such people is, to me, an insult.

I am pretty sure what Nelson Mandela would have thought of young Johnson's extraordinary outpourings – although he'd probably have merely patted the bumptious boy on his famously scruffy, but carefully coiffured, blonde mane in the manner of an adoring pet-owner addressing a randy dog.

A few years after Mandela became president of South Africa I spent a month in the country and so witnessed what a society looks like when it's trying to come to terms with the fact that a very few people have pocketed almost all a nation's wealth. It wasn't a pretty sight. One word came to mind again and again. It struck me that the country was broken. Had it not been for the genius and the humanity of Mandela, it is certain South Africa would have fallen completely to bits. Is it too much to ask our politicians to learn a few basic rudiments from his legacy?

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