HE­ROES AND HALL­MARKS

Toyota Connect/Lexus Life - - GUEST COLUMNIST -

In his homage to writer, poet and hu­man­ist Os­car Wilde, ac­tor Stephen Fry gives a won­der­ful de­scrip­tion of be­ing driven past the Em­pire State Build­ing in New York. From close quar­ters, with a myr­iad other build­ings sur­round­ing it, its real height can’t be seen: the top of the ed­i­fice isn’t vis­i­ble ei­ther, es­pe­cially from a car win­dow. It looks like just an­other build­ing among many. How­ever, some 20 or so blocks later, if one looks back, one sud­denly sees the true scale of the build­ing. It’s only now, from a dis­tance, that one re­alises how it to­tally eclipses every­thing around it. This, says Fry, is how, 120 years af­ter Wilde’s tragic death, we per­ceive what a colos­sus he re­ally was: a gi­ant soul tow­er­ing over his peers, with a vi­sion and reach miles above theirs.

For me, that cri­te­rion – “from a dis­tance” – is crit­i­cal in as­sess­ing which of our icons de­serve to be on their podi­ums and which will have tum­bled down, into ob­scu­rity, decades or cen­turies from now. We live with a daily on­slaught of new icons – many of them spu­ri­ous and self-ap­pointed, driven by so­cial me­dia plat­forms and a nov­el­ty­hun­gry pub­lic. From Hol­ly­wood A-lis­ters to the lat­est tech of­fer­ings, fash­ion de­sign­ers, so­cial lead­ers, wrist­watches and hol­i­day des­ti­na­tions, time and sub­stance will be the ul­ti­mate lit­mus test, dis­tin­guish­ing be­tween the cheap, the sen­sa­tional and the truly great.

Icons who re­main yard­sticks of ex­cel­lence in their par­tic­u­lar sphere many years – or even cen­turies – af­ter their deaths have clearly ig­nited an in­ex­tin­guish­able flame in some vi­tal re­cess of the hu­man imag­i­na­tion.

Th­ese are in­di­vid­u­als who’ve in­spired the gen­er­a­tions fol­low­ing them and who em­body the stan­dards by which we con­tinue to as­sess our own achieve­ments.

One has only to think of Amer­i­can as­tro­naut Neil Arm­strong mak­ing the first boot­print on the moon, a de­fi­ant Steve Biko not only “writ­ing what he liked”, but en­join­ing all Africans to claim their free­dom, or a cigar-puff­ing Win­ston Churchill ex­hort­ing his coun­try to be­lieve in vic­tory against Nazi tyranny. Th­ese are icons who’ve as­sumed nearmyth­i­cal sta­tus.

In our own coun­try, with its che­quered his­tory, we’ve pro­duced not just na­tional, but global icons: like our late, revered Nel­son Man­dela, whose moral and po­lit­i­cal great­ness not only en­dures, but ac­tu­ally in­creases over time, par­tic­u­larly in the con­text of the de­plorable ex­tent to which our state’s in­tegrity has been com­pro­mised over nearly a decade. To­day, with new hope on the hori­zon, we give thanks for the gi­gan­tic foot­print he left be­hind, by which we track our own progress.

In the per­form­ing arts, some of our great­est icons have, iron­i­cally, achieved that sta­tus by lead­ing icon­o­clas­tic lives, such as the late great jazz mae­stro Bra Hugh Masekela – who in­fused im­pro­vi­sa­tional bril­liance with hu­man­ism and Africa’s in­ner tempi, divine de­bauchee Brenda Fassie and prophetic min­strel Moses Molelekwa. Mav­er­icks and rebels have long been he­roes, stand­ing out­side the main­stream and telling their own truth.

On the com­mod­ity level, fra­grance houses like Chanel, horol­o­gists like Con­stantin Vacheron and – of course – mo­tor­ing brands like Toy­ota have en­trenched them­selves so deeply into our consumer value sys­tem that they’re unas­sail­able – and rightly so.

In an age when so­cio-po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural nar­ra­tives swing un­pre­dictably from one ex­treme to an­other, and ob­scure our bear­ings, our icons re­main trusted co-or­di­nates. They re­mind us of what our bedrock val­ues are, who we should fol­low and what should never change.

ICONOGRAPHY IS A HALL­MARK OF OUR AGE, IN EVERY SPHERE OF OUR LIVES – FROM THE ARTS AND THE SCIENCES TO GE­OG­RA­PHY, SPORT AND EN­TER­PRISE. BUT HOW MANY OF THEM DE­SERVE THEIR EXALTED STA­TUS – AND HOW MANY ARE JUST TRANSIENT TRENDS? ASKS KHANYI DHLOMO

Khanyi Dhlomo is a South African en­tre­pre­neur and busi­ness­woman, and founder and CEO of Ndalo Me­dia.

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