Remember that you, too, have to die, Mr President

When Roman emperors returned to the city with their legions after a particularly fruitful campaign – slaughtering people who didn’t want to be Romans, seizing their land, treasure, and the best-looking of their women – there were triumphant parades and fawning speeches to celebrate each glorious victory.

But while the crowds roared their adulation, a slave hunkered down in the chariot behind the homecoming hero. And the slave’s job was to whisper into the ear of the “great man” the ominous words Memento mori (remember that you have to die).

It was meant to remind even the almighty Roman emperors that they weren’t gods. That they were as mortal as any other man. That their time on Earth was brief.

President Jacob Zuma desperately needs such a retainer.

Instead, he has praise singers.

Not just traditional praise singers in leopard skins like the man who, at Zuma’s second inauguration, hailed him as a “warrior for social justice” and declared “the bones of our ancestors are vibrating” while acolytes howled approval and women ululated.

The party above all else
No. Zuma’s praise singers today are most of the 264 ANC members of Parliament who swore to serve and protect all the people of South Africa and to act in the people’s interest.

Instead, almost all serve and protect Zuma and act in the interests of the ANC and themselves. The ANC has become their employer, their religion, their cause, their tribe, their clan, their family, their nation.

That’s because of the peculiar electoral system we’ve devised, called proportional representation.

When we line up to vote, we don’t choose the man or woman we think will best represent our political, economic and social views and will, therefore, have to answer to us.

Instead, we vote for one of the political parties on offer. So it’s not too difficult to understand why, in the view of most of the MPs, their political party – rather than the citizens and the Constitution – has become the source of all power and all largesse.

As a consequence, our elected representatives find it ridiculously easy to forget their sworn duty to we the people and instead look to party bosses for respect, support, promotion – and ultimately money, licit or otherwise.

The honest fighter
All of this has entirely predictable results. Like corruption. Nepotism. Racism. Fascism. And a few other no doubt equally destructive isms.

Which brings me inevitably to my old friend and colleague, Max du Preez. Max recently quit in righteous fury as political columnist for Independent Media (Cape Times, Cape Argus, the Mercury, Pretoria News, etcetera).

He’s but the latest in a long line of former ANC admirers who can no longer stomach the sycophantic excesses of the Zuma/ ANC praise singers.

Max is a gentle man. A man of honour, decency and integrity. He doesn’t have to prove his journalistic or democratic credentials to anyone. His illustrious history as a courageous apartheid-fighter for so many long, brutal years is all the evidence anyone needs.

Truth to power 
So when he wrote his column for the Cape Times, Pretoria News, Diamond Fields Advertiser and the Mercury on December 30, he was doing what he’s always done – he was telling truth to power.

Like this: “The devastation caused by that one-man wrecking ball – Jacob Zuma – will take years to rebuild, even if he were to leave office tomorrow.”

And: “[Zuma] masterfully outmanoeuvred those who stood up to him and instilled a culture of fear in his party. He richly rewarded those loyal to him through a vast system of patronage and massively enriched his own family and clan in the tradition of Mobutu Sese Seko [former president of Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo] and Robert Mugabe.”

Predictably, the presidency was not amused. So it came up with the ultimate South African insult: “The piece smacks of prejudice and racism.”

Max’s bosses at Independent Media took the hint. Without consulting him, they apologised to Zuma for the column. This, of course, seriously pissed Max off.

An ethical stand
And when Max saw pictures of Independent’s executive editor, Karima Brown, and the company’s group opinion and analysis editor, Vukani Mde, flaunting ANC colours at the party’s birthday party, Max quite rightly went ballistic.

As he wrote to Brown in his letter of resignation from Independent Media: “I suddenly understood why you were swayed to … apologise to the president of the party you have pledged allegiance to …

“It appears to me as if your political party’s interests now weigh more heavily with you than ethical journalism.” (This accusation, gentle though it may sound to outsiders, is pretty much the ultimate insult to any self-respecting journalist.)

Brown shot back with schoolyard sophistication, labelling supporters of Max’s position “malcontents and closet racists”.

And that’s more or less where it all stands today.

Max du Preez – who won Yale University’s Globalist International Journalist of the Year award, the Louis M Lyons Award for conscience and integrity in journalism, the Excellence in Journalism award from the Foreign Correspondents’ Association of Southern Africa, and the Nat Nakasa award for fearless reporting – is out of a job again.

Prisoner of conscience
And once again it’s because he’s standing up for freedom of speech in our fragile democracy. He’s a prisoner of his own conscience. And he’s paying a high price for that conscience.

For Max du Preez, the lion from Kroonstad, there’s no other way.

Because, quite simply, he has no choice.

Meanwhile, Zuma and his cronies and his party will honour their oaths of office only if they stop listening to their praise singers and instead remember the slave’s warning to the emperor – Memento mori.

They might also remember that it’s the truth – however inconvenient, however discourteous, however cheeky – that makes us free.

Remember that you, too, have to die, Mr President.

Tim Knight is an Emmy-winning international broadcast journalist and communications coach who’s just emigrated from icy Toronto to live and work in sunny Fish Hoek. He’s the author of Storytelling and the Anima Factor, now in its second edition on and Visit his website at

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