SA is a nation of sycophants, brown-nosing is a culture


By: Hadebe Hadebe

Everyday SA 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. There those who are worshipped and worshippers in the national ‘bayede’ (or gat-kruiping) culture whose outcomes could be worse than corruption. 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 government, business and society as a whole.

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.

What is important to highlight is that brown-nosing is practiced 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. Individuals therefore 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. Brown-nosers have no permanent allegiance and friendships: they are skilled in following ‘ibhodw’eliconsayo’ (dripping pot, or gravy train).

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.

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. Brown-nosing cannot be separated from rent-seeking and patronage, whether one likes it or not. In as much this practice is deplorable, Mark 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).

In SA, words like ‘spaceman’, ‘iceboy’ 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 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.

The complexity of the sycophant culture is that it erodes the little democratic gains the country has made since 1994. Brown-nosing cannot be separated from rent-seeking and patronage as well as corrupt, whether one likes it or not. SA is thus 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. Sucking up has become ‘a national epidemic’ far worse than the coronavirus.

With this post, 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 democracy it needs less sycophants and ‘yes-men’. SA 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 the country is deprived a chance to trading ideas.

As one commentator puts it, a brown-noser is particularly vivid: the stain of flattery persists for all to see!

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