This is going to be another of those rambling, slightly selfish posts where I muse on something vaguely personal and historical when I could instead be writing a guide to fire DPS totems or how latency and reaction time affect caster DPS. Today’s very special episode of Planet of the Hats is about one way of looking at “heroes” in the “real world” (as opposed to the World of Warcraft, wherein all our avatars are heroes in the true adventure fantasy sense).
So, once again let me start with a bit o’ backstory…
In the schools I attended in Scotland during the eighties and nineties, students were quite often asked who their heroes were. I can’t say how often or whether it was a part of the curriculum; all I remember is that it was a question I struggled to answer. Most of my classmates idolised football players or actresses or even (for the real nerds) politicians; by University, most peoples’ heroes had changed to historical, political or religious figures.
I never had a hero.
To me, the question “who do you want to be like?” (which is usually how the question “do you have any heroes?” was qualified) was best answered by the word “myself”. If you think that sounds incorrigibly arrogant and smug, you may be right But I was a very shy child and rather innocently refused to associate myself with all the crazy, complicated, messy “stuff” that I could see going on in the world around me. I wanted to be different. I wanted to be someone genuine, someone good. Oh the dreams of childhood.
As I grew up, and as I developed confidence in myself and a sense of personal identity, I think I became secure enough to admire other people. I know it’s possible to admire people because we’re insecure about who we are, but I think it’s also possible to see in others beauty and value that we can appreciate independent of who we are ourselves. For me, my need for self-affirmation slowly faded as I began to genuinely affirm others, and I think that’s been a hallmark of my character ever since (which is not to say I’m totally secure and never want any kudos, because I think that’d be subhuman).
Anyway, rather than bore you with more pre-adolescent stories, I want to think about this idea of “heroes”.
Do you know who FW de Klerk is? If you followed that Wikipedia link then you obviously do! He became President of the South African National Party in 1989 following the retirement of PW Botha. Four years later, he became the first white South African to be defeated in a general election by a black South African candidate. And – argh, this is ridiculous, it actually brings tears to my eyes to write this – he was the one who made it possible.
This week is the 20th anniversary of the release of the great African statesman and peacemaker, Nelson Mandela. He is world-renowned and honoured by people of all races. I daresay he is, to many people, a hero. Maybe even their hero. A great man, a man who endured prison and torture and censure and emerged to lead a nation into a future of reconciliation and hope.
FW de Klerk is the man who released him.
He started out as a political conservative, steeped in the policies and ideologies of the National Party – the party that engineered Apartheid. They really believed in what they were doing, and really thought it was for the good of the whole nation, and de Klerk was one of them. But in the year he became President of South Africa, he did not act to revert the small reforms brought about under Botha, or even to continue the process of reform in a safe and comfortable way that would ensure his party and his people continued to hold the power.
Instead, on February 2nd, 1990, FW de Klerk walked into parliament to open the new session and dismantled the whole apparatus of oppression. Freedom of press, an end to the death sentence, the unbanning of political parties like the ANC, and the release of Nelson Mandela and all other political prisoners. Just over a week later, on 11th February, Mandela walked free. In May formal negotiations began, and by 1994 South Africa held its first free and fair election since the modern nation began. Mandela’s ANC was elected by an overwhelming majority, and de Klerk became Vice President of the unity government. Oh, and he also ended South Africa’s nuclear weapons programme.
Forgiveness was the mantra and reconciliation the goal: Archbishop Desmond Tutu was appointed chair of the “Truth and Reconciliation” Commission, which, rather than seeking our “war criminals” and bringing them to “justice”, sought to bear witness to the atrocities and experiences of both sides, to grant amnesty to those willing to confess and repent, and as a result to bring true justice in the form of rehabilitation and reconciliation rather than retribution and recrimination.
My family left the country before de Klerk came to power, but in the wake of his reforms we have been back many times to visit friends and relatives. Now my sisters, brothers in law, nephews and nieces are resident there. A lot has changed, and not all of it for the better – there’s a lot of crime and economic difficulty, and the present government still has a lot to learn about how to run a nation, especially one as diverse and as troubled by its past as South Africa. But whenever I think of it, I can’t help but focus on the man who made it possible.
It wasn’t only his doing, of course, not by any means. But ultimately he was the one who stood up in public and, in the eyes of many of his countrymen and party members, “betrayed” his own people. He was the one who took upon himself the responsibility for all that came after, all the negotiations and freedom of terrorists and hopes and risks and everything that could go right or wrong. He is, in some ways, to blame for the insanely high crime rates in Johannesburg and the ineptitudes of the later governments. And I suspect that as he stood there at that podium in Cape Town he knew all that, and weighed it up against the prospect of being the one who did nothing to end the violence and oppression and unrest and moral wrongness of his nation, and made his choice.
Very few people know who he is, and most people wouldn’t think much of him after learning he was a white president of apartheid-era South Africa. Yet he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela.
So yeah, for me, the guy is a hero in the most accurate sense of the word. He was a normal type of person in an inconceivably difficult situation and he did his best to make things work for the best, humbly and quietly, even in the face of hatred and opposition from the people he was serving on both sides. Now he lives in retirement from politics as his legacy unfolds around him, presumably knowing that he is as much to blame for the failures as he is for the successes. And I think anybody who can live with that and still remain as genuine and selfless as de Klerk appears to be (I haven’t met the guy, so this is probably all just projection – but isn’t that what heroes are for?) is somebody worth admiring.
I think in WoW we get an opportunity to see heroism distilled, purified, abstracted from the reality we live in – that’s part of the appeal and beauty of fantasy. Yet somewhere in between the glory and tragedy of the fantasy world I can’t help but think about some of the stuff that goes on in the real one, and be impressed, and be inspired, and be thankful that there are honest-to-goodness heroes in reality as well.
And, just as in WoW, sometimes they are bald.