It was generally in reference to decorated army commanders, who after illustrious careers in the military, faded out of the spotlight into retirement and obscurity.
On a lighter note, the phrase often spawned a host of funny variants such as “old policemen never die, they just cop out” or old golfers who just lose their balls.
The question to ask in South Africa is: Does the catchphrase also apply to old politicians like Jacob Zuma, whose scandal-scarred career as president ended after intense pressure from his party a year ago?
Just when you thought you’d seen the back of the former president and imagined him nestling in the warmth of his Nkandla homestead, his image just keeps popping up into our psyches like those irritating ads on the internet.
Love him or loathe him, it seems impossible to ignore him. And that’s simply because the old man is not the sort of politician who bows out gracefully after losing a scrap.
Although he has been publicly flying the ANC flag and encouraging citizens to vote for the ruling party in the May poll, many South Africans are still deeply suspicions about his intentions.
They can’t seem to fathom whether he is operating beneath the radar to avoid accusations of interfering in the party’s affairs or working surreptitiously behind the scenes to undermine the new ANC leadership.
Speculation has been rife that he’s searching for a new political home because he wants to avoid having to answer awkward questions about his links to the notorious Guptas and state capture.
One story doing the rounds claims Zuma had been involved in secret talks to launch the new African Transformation Movement (ATM) which is linked to former media owner and Gupta associate Mzwanele Jimmy Manyi.
There was also speculation he had been flirting with the Mazibuye African Congress led by Reggie Ngcobo.
Is Zuma planning for a new life after the ANC?
It’s a question all three major political parties will be pondering in the weeks before the election.
With a new poll showing a slight increase in ANC support ahead of the poll, the ruling ANC will be hoping Zuma does nothing to buck that trend.
The DA, which capitalised handsomely from the Zuma scandals, will also be worried. It’s been argued that many black voters only voted DA to get rid of Zuma.
With JZ gone, will that mean a migration back to the ANC?
And what awaits the EFF, which the poll shows has lost some ground in recent months. Their abrasive style of politics worked wonders when Zuma was their target. Will they be shooting blanks with JZ no longer at the helm of the ANC?
Watch this space.