A FATUOUS local academic apparently announced to a colleague that any history before 1994 was of "no interest" to him.
Doubtless then, the occurrence of two anniversaries last week would have passed him by. But for the rest of us, they are hugely consequential. And both of them contain lessons on how leaders change and the extremity of circumstance that forces it upon them. This might salt a clue or two for our national renewal and the prospects for a self-proclaimed "agent of change" soon, apparently, to enter our political arena.
Seventy years ago, on January 31 1943, Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus surrendered the remnants of the Wehrmacht’s 6th Army to the Soviets at Stalingrad. This epic siege is well revealed in Max Hastings’s riveting account of the Second World War, All Hell Let Loose. The title referred to Stalingrad, where the "butcher’s bill" amounted to about a million lives lost in its wasteland. But this battle was the beginning of the end of Adolf Hitler’s dreams of world domination.
However, just seven months before, the military terms of trade were starkly different. As Hastings reminds us, after the fall of Sevastapol, Kharkov and the Crimea, "Russia seemed at its last gasp". The key to the subsequent reversal of fortunes was, in Hastings’s estimation, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s ability to "profit from experience as Hitler would not". Aside from his monstrous ruthlessness, he learnt some vital lessons from his early defeats and implemented changes that were unimaginable until they were forced on him by dire necessity.
In Hastings’s account, Stalin "recognised the need to subordinate ideology to military necessity, the prohibited word ‘officer’ was restored … and unit commanders were liberated from their subordination to commissars; henceforward promotion would be determined by competence".
I was wondering why books about epic events of more than 70 years ago still enthrall. One answer was provided by writer Geoffrey Wheatcroft, who suggests we "crave for a heroic age and for leaders of giant stature", in contrast to the "unheroic age in which we now live, and our diminished rulers".
South Africa today is at peace with the world and our circumstances hardly equate to the furnace of the most terrible event in world history. Still, in the acknowledgment of the government, we are not at peace with ourselves as we confront the triple evils of "poverty, inequality and unemployment".
As we attempt to confront some mini-Stalingrads in our own country, from a failing education system to corrupt public services, might we not apply some lessons from battlefields past? Ditching ideology, which impairs growth and job creation, and removing political commissars from frontline delivery agencies and state-owned enterprises would be good places to start. Or do we have to edge closer to the abyss until we start to change?
One leader who peered into the pit of national destruction and decided to reverse course, or hoist the flag of ideological surrender, depending on your take on history, also commemorated an anniversary last week. Twenty-three years ago, on February 2 1990, then president FW de Klerk used his speech at the opening of Parliament to turn his back on the convictions of a lifetime and inaugurate the constitutional processes that led to the creation of a democratic South Africa.
I sat riveted in Parliament (and it was very far back in those days for a lowly backbencher on his first parliamentary day) as the conservative leader of the National Party essentially implemented, from his podium of power, the manifesto of the electorally unsuccessful white liberal opposition.
What impelled this prince of the National Party to systematically dismantle the house of authoritarian power and racial privilege he was bequeathed, which was the result, even if not the intention, of that speech of thermonuclear intensity?
On his account, there were many in his security establishment who felt he should hold fast to the prevailing order and tough it out in the mould of his predecessors. But, he said, as he peered into the future, "I ultimately only saw disaster if we had dug in our heels." Many will contest this self-assessment, and state that he simply read the proverbial writing, etched in the blood of struggle and protest, on the wall.
Still, at least he had the intelligence and courage to read it, even if his grand design for the subsequent negotiations foundered.
Whatever the motives and background circumstances of De Klerk’s epiphany, he was an unlikely, but essential, agent of change. Now, nearly two decades later, a self-styled "agent of change", Mamphela Ramphele, will, on some accounts, soon pitch her tent on the stony soil of South African politics.
Next week, we will hear further on this. Meanwhile, it was Stalin, again, who asked the essential question: "How many divisions has the Pope?"