Ulysses Grant, who led the North to victory in the US Civil War, after serving two terms as President made a world tour. In Berlin he met the Iron Chancellor, Bismarck, who commiserated with Grant that the Civil War had been so terrible – in terms of casualties, the worst the world then had ever seen. “It had to be terrible”, Grant replied. “There had to be an end to slavery. We were fighting an enemy with whom we could not make peace. We had to destroy him. No treaty was possible – only destruction.”
In 1945 this example was cited by General Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander. It was vital that no one was left in doubt that Nazi Germany had been absolutely defeated. The armistice which had ended the First World War had allowed Hitler to propagate the myth that Germany had only been beaten by a “stab in the back” by the Jews. This time there could be no place for such poisonous nonsense, nor for any nostalgia for the Hitler regime.
Grant and Eisenhower understood the power of their enemies' myths. In the South there was the romance of southern belles living in Romanesque mansions on vast plantations, being wooed by dashing young Confederate officers, the soul of southern honour. This myth, the glory of the South, was only possible thanks to the legions of slaves who worked the plantations and served the belles and their beaux. In Hitler's myth the East was to be resettled, once the Slavs and the Jews had been disposed of, by legions of young Aryan supermen, usually blonde SS officers, who would build the Thousand Year Reich. In the end those myths had to be completely extirpated in order to allow a new beginning.
Independent Africa has also seen numerous cases in which crazy ideas have led to dire results. Sekou Toure's dream of currency autonomy led Guinea to leave the Franc zone. This produced a worthless currency, hyperinflation and the forced emigration of over a million Guineans. Mugabe and Mnangagwa were equally deluded and produced the same results. Julius Nyerere's ujamaa policy involved the use of forced removals similar to those seen under apartheid, resulting in an economic and humanitarian disaster.
In Nigeria the careful regional balance bequeathed by the British was soon upset by a Northern power grab, producing an Eastern secession. These dreams of Muslim northern dominance and an independent Biafra produced a war in which millions died. In Ethiopia Mengistu's Stalinist socialism produced a genocide in which over two million died. In Rwanda crazed Hutu conspiracy theories provided the rationale for the Tutsi genocide in which at least 800,000 died. It is perhaps no accident that Rwanda and Ethiopia now have two of Africa's most successful governments. After what they have been through they are concerned mainly with what works.
All of which is by explanation of why it is so worrying that, faced by an existential crisis so severe that financial analysts are now quite openly predicting a failed South African state, our leaders are playing around with all manner of fantastical proposals. Some of the craziest come from Ramaphosa – the new “smart” city near Lenasia, bullet-trains linking our cities (this at a time when Prasa has collapsed and when theft and vandalism of rolling stock, cables and even stations is rampant), and NHI – a hugely expensive new health system way beyond the state's financial or operating capacity.