South Africans march to the Union Buildings calling on President Jacob Zuma to step down. People tend to believe that their actions are essentially for the greater good, or they do awful things simply because they think they are entitled to, says the writer. Picture: Bongani Shilubane/ANA Pictures
The rise and fall of great men, no matter how often we've seen this story unfold, is always gut-wrenching, writes Lwando Xasa.

I came across a request on a social news aggregation website from a writer seeking help with a difficulty he was experiencing in developing a story line. The difficulty was that the writer wanted one of his heroic characters to turn into a villain but didn't know how to achieve that in a believable manner.

Quite succinctly, the writer conveys this challenge by stating: “My problem lies in that I have no idea what causes someone to go from good to bad. I have a hard time picturing what could drive someone to start attacking and fighting against the people he continues to care about most and to abandon their own morals.”

The writer’s request garnered a number of insightful responses. One respondent stated: “As long as your motives are real, and your character does not just turn bad for the hell of it, your readers will be fine.”

Another asks whether the hero who is about to be the villain “is a real man with real emotions, real feelings, real regrets? You have to decide what drives your character before you can decide what his actions will be.”

Another asks: “What’s their primary motivation? What are they after? What is the character’s fatal flaw?"

And the respondent suggests that the writer lets the character “see how easy it is to get what they want when they let their flaws run free”.

A general theme from these responses is the understanding that no person ever looks at themselves and thinks, "I am the bad guy".

People tend to believe that their actions are essentially for the greater good, or they do awful things simply because they think they are entitled to.

When you make someone a villain in the story, you are creating a stereotype and not a person. The key thing to remember is that everyone is the protagonist of their own story. Therefore, there are no real antagonists, only different points of view.

A hero’s fall from grace is common in literature. Despite its commonality, this is a storyline that is always compelling if it's done right. It is compelling because we all recognise within ourselves one of life’s greatest battles, between our very own demons and better angels.

We look to our heroes to remind us that we too can overcome our demons.

So when our heroes lose the battle between good and evil it signals to us that we too are doomed and that we are destined to surrender to our flaws.

In Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, Macbeth is praised as a hero for defeating the enemy and for showing his undying loyalty to his king - Duncan - who calls him, “valiant worthy gentleman”.

After the witches reveal to Macbeth that he will be king, he is conflicted as he is both excited and uneasy at the prospect.

Macbeth is then consumed by all the obstacles that stand between him and this glorious future. He reflects that his “black and deep desires” encourage him to find a way to overcome this obstacle.

However, Macbeth recognises and accepts that his “vaulting ambition” is the key to his murderous thoughts. He succumbs to his flaws.

Shakespeare offers us no hope of redemption, just tragedy. Macbeth was a reflection of the times in which the play was written - the Renaissance.

It was a time when institutional authority was rejected and individual freedom was asserted, creating the perfect conditions for Macbeth's rise and fall.

In the Ghost of Cornel West, writer Michael Dyson wrestles with the downfall of Cornel West, one of his heroes. Dyson starts by praising West as the most exciting black American scholar ever. But West, who was once a supporter of Barack Obama, changed when Obama won the presidency.

Dyson explores theories from various critics in an attempt to explain West’s downfall. Some believe that West simply could not abide the rise of a figure like Obama, who eclipsed most other black personalities.

For these critics it is this obsession with Obama that turned West from a hero to a villain. Dyson writes that in his “callous disregard for plural visions of truth, West, like the prophet Elijah, retreats into a deluded and self-important belief in his singular and exclusive rightness”.

It is with great sorrow that Dyson concludes that West “has sacrificed friendships and cut ties with former comrades because he insists that only outright denunciation of Obama will do. It is a colossal loss for such a gifted man to surrender to unheroic truculence: If a mind is a terrible thing to waste, then the loss of a brilliant black mind is more terrible, more wasteful.

"At precisely the moment when we could use the old West’s formidable analytical skills to grapple with the myriad polarities that glut the political horizon.

"Once great, once dominant, once feared, West is now a faint echo of himself.

"West lumbers into his future, punch-drunk from too many fights unwisely undertaken, facing a cruel reality:

"His greatest opponent isn’t Obama. It is the ghost of a self that spits at him from his own mirror.”

Cornel West’s rise and fall is a reflection of our times as well, a time when our most brilliant minds are caught up in the trappings of fame and egoism rather than service.

The rise and fall of great men, no matter how many times we have seen this story unfold, is always gut-wrenching.

Our president is such a man.

Watching his fall from grace has been the biggest disappointment of the 21st century - soul-searing and deeply bruising to this nation that fought so hard to be able to elect a president dedicated to this country's transformation.

President Jacob Zuma clearly has a brilliant mind and this country needs this brilliant black mind to be in its service for the betterment of our people now more than ever.

I often come across self-righteous speeches and opinion pieces denouncing President Zuma as an immoral, greedy national disgrace.

These insults have become quite benign and ineffective. Instead, we should be asking what happened to our president? How was he captured in this manner?

Heroes don't turn into villains for the sake of it. Remember there are no real antagonists, only different points of view.

What is Zuma’s point of view and reality? His rise and fall is compelling because, as much as we would like to believe in our own righteousness, in the midst of battling our own demons, we are watching our own president, our chosen leader, lose this battle in such a spectacular fashion which makes us question our own fates.

As Justice Edwin Cameron so soberly recognises in his 2015 Bram Fischer lecture, “how impossible it is to separate villains from saints, and how distracting the attempt to do so can be.

"For we are all complicit in the conditions of our time, where there is no moral purity but only the grubbiness of real material life.”

Maybe we are all complicit in creating the conditions which produced this Jacob Zuma who rules us today.

Watching our president lumber into his future, punch-drunk from too many fights unwisely undertaken, we see a reflection of our country in him, a ghost of a once-promising country on the rise spitting back at us.

* The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Sunday Independent