An Old Man’s Melancholy


From much more than the passing of a global icon.

As quickly as it had erupted, it subsided – soon to be absorbed into the routine joviality that marks every holiday season and to become little more than snapshots in memory banks

In my half century as an active journalist and newsman, during which I personally was involved in the coverage of some major news events such as the 1968 Port Elizabeth floods; one of Chris Barnard’s early heart transplants, the 1969 Boland Earthquake and countless major economic events, I never experienced, or even witnessed such a puzzling media treatment as that of the passing of Nelson Mandela.

It was mysteriously odd that the media could pay so much attention to the passing of one man. Had they got it wrong? Had they had too much time to prepare? Did they totally overrate a “news” event that by its very nature of imminent inevitability reduced its newsworthiness? Channel after channel; column after column; blog after blog; post after post; tweet after tweet, could speak of nothing else.

Stadia were filled with mourners from the august halls of political power to those from the streets. Endless queues snaked passed the earthly remains of a hero. Seldom, if ever before, had there been so much global outpouring of spontaneous lament. As a journalist I was confused. As a man on the eve of his 3 score years and ten, I shared the nostalgic pain.

Then hearts became still and we entered into a new year with the strains of Auld Lang Syne haunting our reflections of a time that was, a promise of the future. The likelihood of that memorable phrase in the lyrics of “taking a cup of kindness yet” is tempered by the stark reality that something much more than one man had died; that what he represented was gone for all time.

Then old men become melancholic.

They are saddened by the knowledge that the New Year will more than likely simply be a repeat of the old, more of the same. They mourn the passing of a concept: that our ultimate calling is to be of service to each other, that our real value is what we extend to others. It was that calling that was perhaps exaggeratingly personified in one man but that vaguely crystallized into a subconscious, inexplicable sense of loss, of auld lang syne, of times gone by.

It’s a deeply seated emptiness that may have prompted journalist Alec Hogg to moot the possibility of “What would Madiba do” becoming a South African clarion call, at the same time expressing a forlorn hope that this could take hold. It’s a disquiet that has perhaps sourced the outpouring of anger by investigative reporter Barry Sergeant at the corruption, collusion, cronyism and exploitation that permeates every fibre of our transactional lives and corporate and government offices.

Old men become forlorn when the blatant hypocrisy of many is thrown into sharp focus when, from a packed stadium broadcast to millions, they eulogise about the qualities of a man they came to honour, but clearly could never hope to emulate.

After decades of sipping at the cup of experience, observations and reflection, old men become perplexed when they witness the ailing demise of a very old friend; one that generally could be trusted to do the right thing; that ensured a balance of power and that spread enablement and empowerment by providing us with sustenance both in means and meaning and whose unwritten but clearly understood intention was to serve, reflected in behaviour that constantly wooed the approval and loyalty of those whom they served.

That friend is business. It now ranks as the second least trusted institution in society, second only to government. It has been afflicted with one of the most virulent behavioural diseases known to man: the demise of long term thinking, or short-termism. In the process, corporates have become larger, more pervasive, global and influential and have adopted a risk averse survival mode, accumulating, concentrating and growing capital delinked from creating tangible wealth; discouraging the trickling down of wider distribution of employment, wealth and opportunity. At the same time it has trampled on the principles of empathy, generosity and compassion, marginalising other constituents such as labour and customers.

In the increasing frenzy of quick returns, shareholders themselves have become impatient, with average holding shortening from about 8 years a half century ago, to about 5 days today.

But of course, they are not alone. The “want-it-all-want-it-now” immediate self-gratification symptom of the short-termism disease is everywhere, ultimately culminating in unrealistic expectations of government, and crushing levels of private and public debt. This debt is then “monetized” in increasingly worthless “promises to pay” that contaminates the means of exchange at its core.

Old men then lament the death of two critical attributes – patience and prudence – the key principles of one man prepared to languish in prison for decades and emerge without anger or vengeance.

It’s not that times were much better in their day – indeed in many respects they were arguably worse. All generations have their warts, and much of what we witness today is simply a repeat of history. What has changed is behaviour. The unwillingness to learn from the past and the failure to adjust behaviour exponentially increases the severity of an inevitable fall-out.

But as a species, humankind is not suicidal – unless it recklessly continues to challenge nature. But when finally confronted with the pain of its misguided path, it will adjust – as it has so often in the past. There is still an underlying and deep-seated benevolence in most of mankind. It exists in South Africa too and there is much that we can celebrate and be proud of.

It’s enough to lift old men out of their melancholy.

by Jerry Schuitema: Award winning veteran journalist, author, retired management consultant and former economics broadcaster who focuses on behaviour in business and economics.



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