Final Word

Bells tolling for a Roman holiday or for Zuma?


President Jacob Zuma was clearly planning a ‘Roman holiday’ for Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, but he should listen carefully to ‘for whom the bell is tolling’.

As the onslaught of the Police’s Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation, generally known as the Hawks, on Minister Gordhan – allegedly on the instigation of Mr Zuma – intensified, it looked very much as if the president were planning a ‘Roman holiday’ for Minister Gordhan.

For context, let’s first note that Mr Gordhan has, in the arena of South African politics, acquired the image of a political gladiator pitched against the predators of the political jungle.

The South African king of that jungle and his allies have planned, and are trying to create, a ‘Roman holiday’ for that hero gladiator of the ordinary population.

A ‘Roman holiday’ is an expression, or a metaphor, that developed from a long narrative poem, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, published between 1812 and 1818 by Lord George Gordon.

It tells us of a gladiator in Ancient Rome expecting to be “butchered to make a Roman holiday” for an audience eager to take pleasure from watching his suffering. The term suggests debauchery and disorder in addition to sadistic enjoyment.

That same audience, and those who arranged the showdown in the arena, might be hearing the ‘bell toll’, thinking it was ringing to announce the funeral of the gladiator.

Listen carefully

Those hearing the bell toll should, however, listen carefully because it might just be tolling for them.

The expression ‘for whom the bell tolls’ made its appearance in English from the pen of John Donne, a poet and cleric of the Church of England. It is from his Meditation XVII, written during the first half of the 17th century, and used in the context of the tradition to ring a church bell to announce a funeral.

The expression gained its modern popularity from the twentieth-century American author Ernest Hemingway, who named one of his novels, set during the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls.

With calls mounting from veterans and current leaders of the governing ANC for Mr Zuma to be removed from his position, that knell might be closer to what Donne had in mind.

Donne wrote: “Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that.”

Final word

Perhaps Mr Zuma, and his applauding audience, should listen more carefully to the tolling of the bells.

by Piet Coetzer

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