This is a story, the substance of which I heard many years ago. I have retold it to fit the South African context, but, obviously, its a "one-size-fits-all" type of story. I published it originally in 2001, in the height of the Mbeki Presidency - He obviously paid no heed to it!
Once upon a time, in a distant land, there lived a very arrogant man. This man, through deeds hidden and some revealed, became the Mayor of the town in which he lived. Initially, everyone was very happy. He seemed a very good replacement for the previous Mayor whom everyone, even his enemies, had loved. All the new Mayor needed to do was to step into the old mans shoes and carry on doing the good things he had done. But, as I said, this new Mayor was an arrogant and hard headed man, unsure of himself and the power he held.
In order to ensure that things stayed the way he wanted them, this man collected around him a band of sycophants and toadies who did everything he wanted them to do. Mostly, he ran things his own way, never listening to criticism and never heeding common sense. When he did want advice, he would turn to this hand picked band of brown-nosers and yes-men (though there were also a few women) who, in fear of their positions, gave him the most incredible and idiotic advice possible, on how to run things. Even more incredibly, the Mayor acted on the advice they gave him and when it became clear that they were all terribly wrong, he stuck to his positions so firmly that to oppose him was declared a heresy. In fact, opposing the Mayor on anything at all became a criminal offence in that town. But worse, speaking the truth about him became punishable by banishment - a fate which many good men and women of that town were to suffer.
Conditions in the town became intolerable. The people in that once happy city became fearful and scared to speak their minds. They got tired of listening to long-winded, boring speeches full of quotations taken from books full of the same. They became wary of what they wrote and what they spoke, so they did less and less of both. As conditions in the town got worse and worse, the people got angrier and angrier. And they liked the Mayor less and less. And they cared less and less for the things he stood for - both the good things and the bad. They longed for the time when they had a mature, wise and fearless leader who didn't shirk any of the real issues, but because of the fact that he was a great man, full of humanity and compassion, dealt firmly and justly with the townsfolk, preferring rather to help people up rather than to tear them down.
Now, the new Mayor might have been arrogant, but he wasn't a fool. He started to see what was happening. How, because of him and his arrogance, all the things he loved the most were slowly dissolving in a slough of anger and resentment. A slough very much of his own making. One day, as the Mayor was taking his bath, he chanced to look at himself in the mirror and he was shocked by what he saw. He saw a man twisted by his own need to be right. He saw a man who didn't listen to the very people he claimed to serve. He saw a man who once was honoured for his wisdom but was now only feared for his power.
The Mayor was deeply disturbed by what he saw. He spent a long time before the mirror, pulling his face this way and that, trying to get the look of a real statesman, of a man quietly confident of his position because he knew that he reflected his subjects wishes and needs and desires. But it was impossible. All that looked back at him was the hard face of stubborn stupidity. And he hated it. He vowed it would not continue. That very day, much to the surprise of his subjects and the host of sycophants around him, he resigned his position, saying he wanted to retire to the country. And from that moment he disappeared.
There was great rejoicing in the town. There was dancing in the streets and parties late into the night. Nobody wondered what had become of the man, because nobody cared.
The man went to a magician he knew who could make the most extraordinary masks. He asked him to make him the mask of a man who cared for and listened to what others had to say. He asked him to make him look kindly and sympathetic. He asked him to make him a face that others would entrust themselves to - that others would respect and love.
The magician worked day and night and eventually he produced this amazing mask, which he placed on the mans head. The man was very pleased with it. Nervously, he went back into the town where he was once the town's most hated and unpopular Mayor. To his astonishment, nobody recognised him in the town, so different did he look. He was amazed by the ease in which people related to him. He found, that instead of hostility and mistrust, as was the case before, people were able to embrace him and open their hearts to him. And so he lived happily amongst the people with his new mask on his face. He found that all sorts of things started changing. He found he could tell jokes and people laughed because they found them funny, not because they wanted to humour him. He found that people respected his views and wanted to debate them with him. He found, as the weeks and months and years went by, that he was becoming more and more popular and more and more respected and adored.
And so it was that the time came for the election of a new Mayor and, lo and behold, the people of the town wanted to elect him to the position! He said no, but the people all said yes! And before he could object further, he found himself elected to the same office he had vacated in such a cloud of resentment and scorn a few years previously.
Nervously, he took to the podium in the town square to make his acceptance speech. He paused and looked at the people all around him. People who loved and adored him. People who wanted to be led by him, who honoured and respected him. And as he looked at the crowd, his eye fell upon a young woman in her early twenties who was staring at him very seriously. With a start, he recognised her as someone he had banished for speaking against him when he was the Mayor before. She was staring intently at him as if she saw beneath the mask. He started to squirm. She jumped up on the podium. "I know this man!" she shouted. "I know this man all too well!" "He is that arrogant scoundrel that we thought we were rid of some years ago". And with that she reached towards his face and pulled the mask off his head.
And what do you think happened? What the good townsfolk saw was, that the face of the man underneath the mask was the same as the face on the mask.
The moral of the story is really quite simple and it applies to Presidents, Mayors, men and women, black and white. If you want to do good, be good. It is really the only way.