Crowns and red berets: A king is bad and a kingmaker is worse

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Kingmaker. It’s a sexy word used to describe sexy people, transporting us into a wood-panelled, cigar-scented world in which Ralph Fiennes, Michael Fassbender and the sweary Scot from The Thick of It trade exquisite barbs over who should become the next minister of foreign affairs.
In SA, the word describes slightly less sexy people, unless your kink involves hypocrites in red overalls tweeting veiled threats to journalists.
The word, however, has retained its appeal: Thursday it was in the headlines yet again, as an amaBhungane investigation hinted at dirty dealings in Johannesburg, where the local “kingmakers” allegedly made the DA an offer it couldn’t refuse.
Yes, we’ll be hearing about “kingmakers” for as long as creaking big parties need noisy and opportunistic small ones.
Which is why, I think, it might be useful to take a moment and look at the word itself. Not the political context. Not the current circus of fictitious Canadian bank accounts and media boycotts and all the other tedious performance of opposition politics. Let’s just look at the word, and, for perhaps the first time in years, think about what it’s saying, and how perfectly it describes current SA politics.
The thing that strikes me first about the word “kingmaker” is all the words that it isn’t. It isn’t, for example, “democracy-maker”, or “consensus-finder”, or “poverty-ender”, or “job-creator”. No. It’s “kingmaker”: a person or party who, through their actions or influence, cause a new king to be crowned.
And what is a king?
A king, throughout almost all of recorded history, is a person who is untouchable and unimpeachable. A king is God’s right had on Earth, with the power of life and death, and a divine right to do whatever he wants and to never have to explain his whims. The people who live under his control are not citizens: they are subjects.
Almost without exception, he is a person who becomes fantastically wealthy by taxing the poor in his kingdom, often to death. He may confiscate property from those he perceives as enemies and hand it to those he believes are friends. If he indulges in politics, perhaps by establishing some sort of servile parliament, it is to entrench his own power and that of his sycophants.
It is very, very rare that a king serves his people.
But there is one subject who serves the common good even less. And that is the kingmaker.
A kingmaker by definition puts personal political ambitions ahead of the needs of the country. Patronage, not patriotism, is paramount. He is also, by definition, two-faced: he will sell his principles in a heartbeat if it means getting a foot in the door of power, trumpeting that such-and-such a party is racist or corrupt while forging alliances with it.
Yes, we’ll be reading plenty about kingmakers in the coming months, as if they are normal or benign or somehow helpful to democracy. And yes, I know it’s a figure of speech. But sometimes words mean what they say, or at least show their truth in plain sight. Kingmakers might thrive inside the democratic process, but they have contempt for the will of the people. And in the end, they serve only one ruler: their own ambition...

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