(The Hamilton Spectator – November 23, 2013)
KAMPALA, UGANDA – When Rob Ford first appeared onscreen in Africa I was sitting in front of some public televisions, a place where I often work, reading about Ghandi.
It was strange because Gandhi, the great Indian leader, led a fifth of the world’s people to democracy in his bare-feet, boney and malnourished and wrapped in just a sort of bed-sheet, while the burly mayor of Toronto has become a small man even while, in heavy shoes, he’s fallen with such a thud that it somehow has to be heard around the world.
The last time I recall Ontario news making it this far was six years ago when the Shedden massacre involving the infamous Banditos gang got a couple of paragraphs in a Ugandan daily.
One hardly knows what else needs to be said about this personal implosion and splaying of innards, except that even in the über-secularism of the west, which generally allows private lives to be just that, there are limits when it comes to public officials mixing street drugs with public vulgarity and otherwise bizarre behaviour.
Ford’s very visible descent also reminds us that we all live with certain ghosts, that is we live with events and people who continue to be with us and in us and around us long after their deaths, including their political deaths, sometimes for our betterment and sometimes not.
This is why on your side of the ocean you’ll still hear Uganda in one breath and Idi Amin in the next, even while Amin has been gone for decades and his bloody legacy may or may not have much to do with daily life where I sit today.
Now the words ‘Ford’ and ‘Toronto’ will continue to get baroque laughter for some time. I’ve personally heard it here, yes, of all places, in Africa.
Africa, where the leaders are so shaky that earlier in 2013, the Mo Ibrahim Prize, $5 million given to any African who governs with excellence and then – here’s the catch – steps down voluntarily, wasn’t given for the second time in three years because apparently nobody worthy can be found.
This prize from a Sudanese businessman is the largest in the world, four times the Nobel Prize, plus another $200,000 a year thereafter, but this, really, is paltry to what you can get through corruption and simply hanging around indefinitely.
A comic – and they’ve had their time – would say that this qualifies Ford rather nicely to govern some desperate African state, not because he’s so rotten but because he simply can’t leave.
To be fair, Africa has produced some worthy leaders. Nelson Mandela comes to mind. And to be fair, real life, not life shown on one screen or another, is more muddy. Ghandi, that saint, may have led millions but he was also known as a shyster in his own family, mistreating his wife to the point of refusing medical care which resulted in her death.
Even someone as revered as John F. Kennedy, grieved worldwide when he was slain 50 years ago virtually to the day, walked with clay feet in his own family with his various infidelities.
Even so, we see these men as legends. And if they did have a certain greatness it radiated from their understanding that public life is to be pursued in a spirit of service, what Kennedy expressed eloquently and simply when he said that it’s not about asking what your country (let’s add city) can do for you, but rather what you can do for it.
What Ford can do is still the obvious: step down. And this is not just for Toronto, it’s for himself, so that he can grapple with and find what any of us need to find, what’s deeper inside of him and what, ultimately, needs healing. Because his life has much more value than any chain of office.
The mayor can choose to stick around and stink up the place even more. But that chain around his neck will just get heavier and tighter. And the rest of us, apparently regardless of where we are, will be left to watch even more in sad bewilderment.