Miles Kington: When the underdog becomes the top dog

Freedom fighters can die young and untainted, or they can grow old and become monsters of corruption

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One of the reasons why the sacking of Jakob Zuma, South Africa's deputy president, has been so uncomfortably received is that that is not how heroes are meant to behave. Zuma, after all, was an old ANC champion who was in prison with Nelson Mandela. He was a principled underdog, fighting for liberty against an oppressive regime.

And now it seems that when he reached power, he fell from grace and was tempted by bribes and corruption. To make it even worse, his close financial associate, nay, his personal financial adviser, Mr Shabir Shaik, has just been sentenced to 15 years for fraud, which makes Zuma look shadier than ever, and everyone is saying what a shame it is, though Mr Zuma is still very popular, and nobody can quite believe it, and all the other pieces of blarney that accompany the fall of a hero.

Well, it may be a shame, but to say that it is a shock or a surprise would be ridiculous. One of the things you learn in life, or that you ought to learn in life, is that when the underdog becomes the top dog, he changes character as fast as a lottery winner.

The underdogs always get a good press. Freedom fighters are always heroes. The little guy oppressed by the big guy is always right. The Boers 100 years ago ... the Vietcong ... the Australian aboriginals ... the people of East Timor... the indigenous North Americans ... gays everywhere ... the Jews in Nazi Germany ... all these in their time have had the rose-tinted spectacle treatment. Quite right, too. They were all treated despicably. But because of that we also assumed that they were noble and virtuous and patient and long-suffering, and that when they were liberated, they would go on being noble and virtuous and all the rest of it, and work out their own future, and put all the past wrongs right.

Blarney. I can remember when I was at Oxford that Paul Foot wrote endless articles in Isis magazine condemning French colonial treatment of the Algerians. Well, he had to. The Vietnam War hadn't started yet. There was nothing else to wax indignant about. So he practised his wrath on the brutal French treatment of the poor Algerians. And he was right in that the French were cruel and the Algerians were victimised. And lo, it came to pass that Algeria got its independence, and the Algerians started to govern themselves, and when they did they made a pretty piss-poor job of it and turned out to be as dictatorial as anyone else, and Algeria is now as bad as it was under the French but nobody says anything about it, or about the Algerians being as vicious as their old masters were.

Because when the poor down-trodden victim finally attains power, he becomes as corrupt and vicious as anyone else, and often as incompetent. The Africans threw off the colonial yoke and put on an African yoke of despotism and corruption. The Jews, freed from the Nazi boot, created their own racist nation and yes, if the poor downtrodden Palestinians got their chance for self-government, they would do the same, and it is a good job for the legend of the North American indigenous people that they never threw the white man out, because if they had ruled themselves they would have been seen to be as captious and cruel as their conquerors. The only tribe that gets a perpetual good press is the tribe that never gains its freedom. Not even that, in the case of the Chechens.

(Or in the case of the IRA either, interestingly. The IRA were once admired from afar, especially from the USA, as freedom fighters. No longer. Now they are seen as corrupt, and drug-runners, and thugs, and murderers, and running protection rackets. And they haven't even attained the power they were after! They have managed to go directly from being underdogs to being dirty dogs without ever being top dogs.)

And that is why Nelson Mandela is regarded universally with awe. Freedom fighters normally have two courses of action. They can die young, unfulfilled and untainted, like Che Guevara, or they can become monsters of greed and corruption like Robert Mugabe. To grow old, and powerful, and still stay good and untainted, as Nelson Mandela has done, is almost superhuman. To fall, like Jacob Zuma, is sad. But how very human.

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