FALL of Giants is the name of popular novelist Ken Follett’s sprawling novel set on the eve of the First World War. Although Follett is staunchly Labour, the book’s title well describes the death last week of the most consequential British prime minister since the Second World War, Margaret Thatcher. Actually, when it came to popular novelists, she much preferred Jeffrey Archer, who she hand-picked in 1985 as Conservative Party deputy chairman, approvingly describing him as an "extrovert’s extrovert".
In fact, there was much in both his novels and the rise to fame and later descent into infamy of the bumptious and talented Archer, a self-made (and somewhat self-invented), gifted striver and master storyteller, who was ultimately imprisoned for perjury, that summed up the age of Thatcher: the promotion of anti-establishment talent, the unleashing of strident populist forces and placing freewheeling capitalism at front and centre of the British story, rather than the mushy consensus that had dominated its post-Second World War history. And, of course, the excesses and controversies that accompanied the many "big bangs" Thatcher exploded across the British and world polities in her 11 years as prime minister.
This week’s Economist magazine headlined her accomplishments in just two words: "Freedom Fighter", an approving reference to her push-back against the advancement of the state and her unflinching determination to stare down and defeat those she saw leading the UK and the world down the path to perdition; or, in the title of the most famous work of her favourite intellectual, Friedrich Hayek, The Road to Serfdom.
Ironically, last week, just two days after Thatcher’s death, South Africans commemorated the 20th anniversary of the assassination of a freedom fighter of a very different stripe, Chris Hani. The different circumstances of their struggles and demises suggests why this nation seemed to unite in its tributes to Hani, while the UK remained bitterly divided about Thatcher.
Of course there is a world of difference in Thatcher dying last week at the age of 87 and as a three-term prime minister in the sumptuous splendour of the Ritz Hotel, in contrast to Hani being gunned down outside a modest East Rand suburb on Easter Saturday in 1993, at the age of 50, before even having the opportunity to ever vote in an election.
But in his death and in her life, Hani and Thatcher also changed, irrevocably, the paths of their countries: it was the shock and the elemental forces unleashed in the wake of the Hani assassination that forced the stalled constitutional negotiations in Kempton Park toward a conclusion.
Hani and his political heirs also succeeded in doing something that was, despite their recoil at the comparison, very Thatcherite: they changed the terms of the debate and recast the mould of politics, perhaps forever. Thatcher’s chief of staff, Charles Powell, observed: "I’ve always thought there was something Leninist about Mrs Thatcher." Nothing perhaps illustrated this better than the remark last week of the spokesman of South Africa’s official opposition, who described Hani as his political inspiration. Perhaps an odd statement for a party that opposes most of the Hani agenda.
But then again, perhaps not. After all, when Thatcher was asked about her legacy enduring, she pointed to Tony Blair, the hat-trick election winner for "New" Labour, whose reinvention of his party was the direct consequence of Thatcher rewriting the rules of politics, and its terms of engagement.
However, instead of energetically recasting various South African party histories into various moulds from the past, for which some of them are uncomfortable fits, they would do well to remember the wise words of Thatcher’s unlikely heir, Blair, that "we must honour the past, not live in it".
Thatcher in 1979 inherited a sclerotic, ailing UK, which was enthralled to its past and haunted by its history. As The Economist noted, "to a generation of politicians scarred by the mass unemployment of the 1930s, full employment became the overriding object of political life". Hence very often the difference between Labour and Conservative governments, after the war, was a distinction without difference. The drive toward "consensus politics" drove successive governments to intervene ever more minutely in the economy. But unemployment and inflation rose, stratospherically, as uncompetitive practices were retained. Thatcher broke the consensus and unleashed a radical agenda.
Many of South Africa’s institutions and practices, from the National Economic Development and Labour Council that cry for the reconvening of the Convention for a Democratic South Africa every time we face a crisis, are also noble relics from our predemocratic age. What worked then will not work now. South Africa has moved on from its past and it needs political imagination and mould-breakers to meet the challenges of the future.