Final Word

Zuma and Gordhan – who’s train and who’s the chicken


President Jacob Zuma’s recall of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan from an international investors-wooing roadshow was playing chicken with South Africa’s economy.

That was about the consensus amongst commentators to the shock news last weekend that the president has summoned the minister and his deputy to immediately return home from London where they started with their road show to convince international business people to invest in the country.

I remember the concept of “playing chicken” from a reckless patch in my youth, when friends and I would run across the busy main road on the outskirts of our town with is heavy, fast traffic.

If memory serve me right, we picked up the idea from an American movie in the late 1950s, glorifying the “ducktail culture” of the time. Two ducktails, each in his own soup-up V8 car, would line-up facing one another on a strip of road and sped off directly towards each other at high speed.

The first one to serve out of the way, was the chicken – the coward – and the one keeping his line the hero, never mind that both would be as dead as roasted chicken if no-one gave way.

Why the chicken

Why has the poor chicken, originally a forest bird, first domesticated by the Chinese some 10 000 years ago, been chosen as symbol of cowardice?

As is often the case with slang terms, no-one is absolutely sure of why the chicken has become the symbol of cowardice. But the theory goes that it is because chickens, to this day, almost always run away when people approach.

The first recorded example of the chicken symbolising a coward, dates back to 1600 in William Kemp's (a contemporary of William Shakespeare) work Nine Days' Wonder with this phrase: "It did him good to have ill words of a hoddy doddy! a hebber de hoy! a chicken! a squib."

Playing Chicken with a train

Apart from the versions of chicken-playing with cars, another well-known version is for friends to stand on a railway track facing an oncoming train, with the challenge being to see who would be the last one to “chicken out.”

If your nerves can handle it, look at the example of this version of chicken in the YouTube-post here.

And, if you think that President Zuma and/or Minister Gordhan were the first to bring the concept of playing chicken to politics, you are wrong. The game of chicken is also known as the hawk-dove game and used inter-changeably and is most  prevalent in political science and economics.

In the power play that is taking place between president Zuma and his minister, only time will tell who will turn out to be the train and who as the dead chicken heading for a roasting.

In the meantime, we run the risk that the train might go of the rails and set the whole economic ‘country side’ alight.

And then, by the end of the week the Zuma-train has arrived and the sparks were flying, and South Africa’s economic firefighter-in-chief, Pravin Gorhan, has left the building.

by Piet Coetzer

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