South Africa is a nation of sycophants, brown-nosing is a culture
PRETORIA – Public contestation of ideas is a complex terrain that one needs to navigate with great circumspection. When an individual complains or opposes an idea, nobody cares to interrogate the message and respond accordingly to address that concern and or complaint.
What is predominant is open bullying and harassment. Insults are hurled at the person who challenges an idea or authority. The latest example of this happened when poet Ntsiki Mazwai penned a letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa a few weeks ago. But this is a common phenomenon that defines South Africa’s national discourses, which means that the country destroys critical thinking and promotes a new form of parasitism which breeds a new culture of brown-nosing.
To this day, the majority of the people who went for Mazwai’s person instead of reading what she was raising still don’t know what she said. Those who dismissed her as a lunatic thought they were doing the president a favour by ‘protecting’ him from the young woman’s fury and rage, so they imagined.
Unfortunately, they were knowingly or unknowingly engaging in schoolyard harassment. In SA, there is a meanness and smugness to the way individuals denigrates their opponents or any person or thing (ideas or) they don’t like. In what is becoming a norm, society generally doesn’t speak pernicious attacks on people who hold different views and beliefs.
There must be an underlying reason individuals decide to behave in the way they do. As such, it is necessary to dissect the national psyche with a view to understanding the conduct of individuals in public and sometimes private spaces. The intention is to spark a debate about tolerance of ideas and to discourage psycho-dependency which generates a repugnant culture of political gat-kruiping and non-thinking.
The view is that for a country to develop and mature in a democracy it needs fewer sycophants and ‘yes-men’. South Africa has to promote a healthy exchange of ideas and discourage fatwas against thinkers. At the moment political arguments, in general, reflect zero-sum thinking, or Trumpesque. The opportunity for knowledge sharing and learning is thus sacrificed and also depriving the country of trading ideas.
Going back to the saga which involved Ntsiki Mazwai, then questions that follow are: Why do people decide to entangle themselves in a matter that did not need them because it was a citizen talking to a democratically elected representative? Is it possible that Mazwai’s critics engaged in acts of intolerance and bullying to intimidate her? If not, what caused many of them to rise from their chairs to seek “approval” for shielding the President when they were not invited by anyone?
The last question is the heart of this article. Many people would go an extra mile to embroil themselves in complex situations that they could have easily avoided in their quest to get some recognition. The idea is that some benefit will accrue from this gallant effort.
Not that people have no right to differ with a person, say Mazwai or anyone else for that matter, but the way go about doing it and their intentions are what triggers interest. Dangerous discourses and group psyche tend to remove independent thinking and a bayede (praise singing) phenomenon replaces objectivity and reason.
Individuals are compelled to behave in this manner due to a complex notion of sycophancy. Mark Parker, an English professor at James Madison University, defines sycophancy as “flattering someone in order to gain an advantage.” If one needs to see how this concept plays out, there is a need to observe how individuals interact with authority in the government, business and society as a whole.
Stomach politics and boot-licking
Everyday South Africa feels increasingly like a place of monarchs and the notion of the divine right of kings seems to guide and direct conduct behaviour of individuals. Cameroonian scholar Jean-François Bayart coined the phrase ‘politics of the belly’ (or politique du ventre, in French) to denote “the relationship between patrimonialism, clientelism, corruption, and power.”
Bayart never knew that this condition would not only result in things like corruption and greed, but this would also create a powerful subset of parasitic behaviour on the part of those who want to access the perceived power. A mixture of stomach politics and boot-licking results in a deadly combination that threatens to sink South African society.
What is important to highlight is that brown-nosing is practised by most people, consciously or subconsciously, irrespective of position, rank or social status. It is quite common these days to see a cabinet minister or senior public servant praising his or her superior every ten minutes. Not that people shouldn’t show adoration but suck up has different packaging and weight compared to genuine liking between individuals.
However, in public spaces sucking up is a serious problem – individuals use extreme or cunning forms of nauseating flattery to ingratiate themselves with others for personal gain. What is also notable is that flattering changes form and shape depending on what people want, so it is neither based on ideology or belief system.
In their article titled: ‘Are We in a Golden Age of Brown-nosing?’, researchers Deborah Parker and Mark Parker explore the notion of sucking up or sycophancy. They argue, “Flatterers perform through the media for a target who monitors the tribute at a distance... People often treat flattery as a kind of transaction, a quid pro quo that one enters into and exits cleanly.” In as much this practice is deplorable, Parker argues that sycophancy is an effective psychological behaviour. He adds that humans “are extremely vulnerable to it.” As such, brown-nosers have no permanent allegiance and friendships: they are skilled in following ‘ibhodw’eliconsayo’ (dripping pot, or gravy train).
A 2019 study conducted by the professor of business strategy at University of Michigan James Westphal also established that “overly flattering your superiors was the top predictive factor for moving up.” The implication of this is that the more successful flattery is, the less likely the flatterer is to see it as fraud. In South Africa, words like ‘spaceman’, ‘ice boy’ and ‘runner’ sum up the nature of the relationship between a brown-noser and the one who is being impressed (also called ‘moreki’). Usually, moreki carries the purse and other essentials to manipulate the behaviour of the ice-boy. The ice-boy laughs at no jokes and smiles even when abused. It doesn’t matter for as long as material gains such as money, liquor and slay-queens keep coming in his direction.
A politician who can’t carry his bag or drive himself and his family in the name of protocol displays all the necessary traits of moreki. He drives his subordinates up the wall and also says some of the most despicable things that should never be said to a human being. With such grotesque behaviour he is always surrounded by brown-nosers: power relations are skewed and lopsided as in a drug gang. These narcissists, like gang leaders, have no real difficulty attracting praise singers. A promise of material benefit maintains loyalty and subservience. The character of corrupt and pompous Chief Nanga in Chinua Achebe’s novel ‘A Man of the People’ (1966) explains how he used his position to increase his personal wealth and power. And individuals are attracted to characters similar to Chief Nanga because they believe that one day they will get something from the relationship. No matter how humiliating the relationship turns out, they stick around and heap praises on him.
A proud nation of obsequious sycophants
As a result, South Africa is proudly a nation of uncompromising, obsequious sycophants who display this kind of distasteful behavior without shame for as long as their effort is recognized in one form or another. Abbey Slattery calls sucking up “a national epidemic”. At the workplace it is irritating enough to witness a co-worker jumping around like a small puppy when the big boss is around. Every time this happens the mood immediately becomes tense and thick.
An environment which is dominated by brown-nosers is toxic and unbearable. As lamentable brown-nosing is, more and more people push to be recognized as part of innermost circle. The holy-grail is the ultimate reward for the impressive performance.
Now imagine when this occurs at a national scale and everyone appears comfortable doing it. That is exactly how South African society has become in the post-apartheid era. It is nauseating to see an old, respectable person crouching down and cowering before another man, or woman. These are the same people who openly declared their dislike of the way white bosses treated black workers during apartheid. But the existence of a powerful individual and a brown-noser replicates a baasskap relationship. The implication of this sub-culture is that is more damaging than corruption. Corruption can be dealt with using prosecution and the justice system but does one stop brown-nosers? It is almost impossible. What is bad about this behavior is that it is demeaning. At worst, it could be behind all that can potentially go wrong in society.
During the height of state capture accusations a few years ago, it was revealed how individuals would rush to Saxonworld “to enjoy curry” of the Gupta family. Individuals would throw themselves on the floor to worship the path where Atul and Ajay walked in the hope of getting favors in return. The spectacle was distasteful and embarrassing especially when the Gupta guest list became public. Not that this was an event that passed but today this culture is even much stronger.
Those who want recognition and positions go at length to impress politicians and businessmen alike. In business and politics, kissing other people’s rear end is quite common in the hope to getting some form of recognition or gains. These material benefits can be in the form of jobs as members of the executive or boards of directors, financial resources and proximity to power. Many people are driven by thought of owning mansions and a fleet of cars. Others want to be billionaires too.
The complexity of this culture is that it erodes the little democratic gains the country has made since 1994. In SA, it is impossible to raise an issue without being labeled, and what is important is to be in the ‘right’ side of the argument. Each and every view has to be forced into an antithesis: a debate can never be free of perceived bias. For example, anyone who favours the nationalization of the South African Reserve Bank (SARB) is quickly dismissed as a looter. Also, for some it is unacceptable to criticize high ranking public representatives. For instance, it is considered a taboo to rebuke the president and his ministers in how they deal with the coronavirus.
The reasons for this are not based on any rationale other than sycophancy. This is notwithstanding that a leader would prefer to get feedback on how he or she is performing. Surely, government would want to know where it goes wrong but general sensitivities are just way too strong on the part of drum-majorettes.
Creation of non-thinkers and sameness
Boot-licking goes down to a level of political parties. Some people ask how come the ANC continues to win elections by such a large margin in spite of mistakes and negligence it has displayed over twenty-six years. The answer to this is fairly straightforward and relates to the dominant culture of sycophancy. Also, the EFF is built around personality cult and for anyone to succeed he or she has to display a fake smile at all times. Generally, internal democracy in political parties and organizations is severely compromised because there’s an expectation leaders should not be questioned. Brown-nosing cannot be separated from rent-seeking and patronage, whether one likes it or not. Any discussion on how democracy in SA can be strengthened needs to focus on the predominant habitual behavior of wanting to create sameness in thinking.
Dissent is viewed as treasonous. But having non-conformists and independent thinkers, irrespective of political or ideological orientation, generates plurality. Writing in the Irish Times, Colin Harvey, a professor of constitutional and human rights law at the at the University of Leeds, asserted, “To kill the ‘other’ is the strongest denial of difference and effectively ends the social conversation.” Having individuals and groups such as Ekurhuleni mayor Mzwandile Masina, Carl Niehaus, Derek Hanekom, Busisiwe Mkhwebane, Pravin Gordhan, Ntsiki Mazwai, Andile Mngxithama and Afriforum in one space is actually good since it promotes plurality of ideas and contributes positively to democracy. There is no need to be in agreement or disgusted because without characters who are not afraid to speak truth to power more damage can easily occur in a society.
Of course, there are many people who contribute positively to pluralism in SA, but media has generally been disappointing all around. The Fourth Estate abuses or mishandles its power and role in society. The media has abandoned its role to inform and educate to becoming mouthpieces and its views are steeped towards boot-licking. Bias and impartiality is a decorated form brown-nosing. As such some journalists have been accused of masquerading as politicians and moles. Media personnel therefore frustrates “the conditions which make effective democratic dialogue possible.” Anyone who cleans boots very well becomes a media darling, and others get called names like ‘mampara’, ‘looters’ or numbskulls. The purpose of such is to turn individuals to renowned drum-beaters for a certain cause or person.
As one commentator puts it, a brown-noser is particularly vivid: the stain of flattery persists for all to see!
Based in Pretoria, Siyabonga Hadebe is an independent commentator on socio-economics, politics and global matters.