Friday, December 7, 2007

Are all excuses poppycock?

I am a sad individual who likes making New Year's resolutions. I enjoy the challenge and think it contributes to personal growth. As the excess of Christmas approaches, I find reviewing my resolutions from the year before brings me down to earth, reminding me how inept I can be at times. I believe being reminded of one's ineptness is a sure road to humility, humility a path to personal enlightenment.

So in early December this year I began my retrospective reflection of last year's resolutions. However, this year my shortcomings were obvious before I even started. To be honest, I could not remember what my resolutions were at the end of 2006.

I am sure they must have had something to do with health, fitness or more quality time relaxing, but the specifics elude me. In fact, I cannot even remember if I made resolutions. When this dawned on me, I immediately found myself trying to think of excuses why I had let myself down. Could inebriation, at a New Year's Eve party, have impaired my capacity to remember? Or is my mind just deteriorating with age?

This questioning, in turn, led me to thinking about excuses. This helped me to realise that, even if I could remember my resolutions, I probably would now be making excuses about why I did not follow through on them. I was too busy to attend the gym regularly, and important work commitments prevented me from taking more time off, and so on.

Making excuses is deep in the human psyche. It all started when Adam blamed Eve for making him eat the apple and Eve, in turn, blamed the snake for leading her into sin. Highlighting so-called extenuating circumstances to account for our own failings protects our sense of self from a negative self-image. Not taking responsibility appears easier than being honest.

Remember Tony Blair's defence about the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Essentially, his only mistake was he believed, being the trusting man he is, intelligence reports that were wrong. Or what about Bill Clinton's famous line: "I tried marijuana once – I did not inhale"? This is the best example of a half truth ever.

As the ANC conference approaches in mid-December, where the new ANC president will be crowned, I wonder what excuses will flow from that. If Thabo Mbeki is derailed, will it be because he was undermined by populist ethnic politics? Or, if Jacob Zuma finds himself in the political wilderness, will it be because he was demonised by his rivals, who undermined his cuddly image?

Bob Wall reminds us that the one common denominator in every mess you find yourself in is you. Much mud is slung in politics, but sincere politicians will shine through. No politician, especially of the stature of Mbeki or Zuma, or our friend Mugabe, who insists on blaming others for his failings, is a hapless victim. More than anyone else, politicians have the power to shape their and other people's destiny – they should not need excuses. To quote Shakespeare, "oftentimes excusing of a fault doth make the fault the worse by the excuse".

I wonder what would happen if everyone owned up to their flaws. Would the world fall apart if we knew Clinton had smoked dope? Or that ambition is at the core of the power struggle in the ANC, and not a heartfelt desire to serve the people? Would the political system collapse if someone in South Africa admitted that arms-deal cash found its way into the hands of some politicians? Or if we knew sometimes fictitious reasons were given by politicians to help justify war?

Remarkably, we know the truth, but we collude in the illusion that we do not until it is acknowledged. In this context, who is more inept –the maker of excuses or those of us who choose to believe them?

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 7 December 2011 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

* Note this article was written prior to Jacob Zuma winning the ANC Presidency. The next piece focuses on this.