Final Word

ANC all at sea, with an albatross and sirens all over


The governing African National Congress has an albatross called Gupta around its neck, and all at sea with sirens warning – or are they luring?

It has become a familiar narrative in media reports that the relationship between leading members of the ANC, especially President Jacob Zuma, has become an albatross around the neck of the party. And many also warn that it has set off warning sirens about the party’s future, although sirens might also be the cause of the trouble – being the lure of easy money to be made.

To say that the situation in many respects leaves the party all at sea, might also be quite appropriate.

The albatross, a particularly large white sea bird that spends most of its life drifting on weather systems over thousands of kilometres and often follows ships, gained its metaphorical status from an epic poem written in 1798 by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

The poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner relates the story of a ship blown off- course towards Antarctica when an albatross made its appearance in the sky to lead them away from the drifting ice and mist, and is praised and adored by the crew.

But then one of the mariners shot the bird down with his bow and arrow, earning him the wrath of the crew members who believed the albatross delivered the wind to take them out of the harsh Antarctic waters.

As fate would have it, the wind died down and soon they were under conditions that, as related by the poem, gave us another proverbial expression: “Water, water every where, Nor any drop to drink.”

The crew blamed the mariner for their misfortune and forced him to carry the body of the dead bird around his neck as a burden of punishment.

Next they met a ghost ship with a skeleton (symbolising death) on board playing dice with a pale woman (symbolising a nightmare of life-in-death) for the souls of the sailors. The skeleton won the souls of the crew and the pale woman the soul of the mariner.

Eventually, as full penance for killing the albatross, the mariner was cursed to roam the earth, telling everyone he met his story, with the lesson: “He prayeth best, who loveth best, All things both great and small, For the dear God who loveth us, He made and loveth all.”

Sirens of the sea

The word siren also finds its origin in the world of seafaring mythology, and again females (beautiful ones in this case) play an important role.

From Greek and Roman mythology we learn that sirens were dangerous but beautiful creatures – femmes fatales – sitting on the shores of islands, luring sailors by enchanting music to shipwreck on the rocky coast.

Mythology tells us that they were sea deities. In Roman lore they were the daughters of Phorcys, the Greek god of hidden dangers.

In another myth the queen of the gods, Hera, arranged a singing contest between the Sirens and the Muses, the goddesses of inspiration for literature, science and the arts. The Sirens lost the competition, turned white and fell into the sea, formed islands, and forever had their revenge by luring sailors to their destruction.

The word ‘siren’ arrived in English in the early 14th century from Latin via the Old French word sereine, mainly in reference to an acoustical instrument for producing musical tones. It was first recorded in the figurative sense as “one who sings sweetly and charms” in 1580 and as a device that makes a warning sound in 1879, in reference to steamboats.

All at sea

The expression all at sea, meaning “in a state of confusion and disorder”, is an extension of the nautical phrase “at sea” used in the early days of seafaring to describe the uncertain position of ships that were out of sight of land and in danger of becoming lost.

In this sense it was first recorded as a legal term in the Commentaries on the laws of England, published by Sir William Blackstone in 1768.

The extended version of the term’s first-known recording occurred in 1893 in Frederick C. Selous’s Travel and Adventure in south-east Africa.

Over time it became used mainly for “a state of confusion and disorder”, describing neatly what happened to me when I recently lost my laptop in a burglary. Not only did I lose most of my existing records, but also had to come to grips with a so-called ‘updated’ version of the operating system on the replacement computer.

Final word

While they are in control of steering Ship South Africa, the ANC should stay alert to the sweet, seductive lure of instant wealth and recognise it as the voices of sirens of the danger-ahead-kind.

And, in considering the relationship between the Guptas and some members of their top leadership, the ANC should perhaps also contemplate three other proverbial expressions that the very productive poet Coleridge left us as part of his legacy: ‘Achilles’ heel’, ‘pipe dream’ and ‘suspension of disbelief’.

by Piet Coetzer

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