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Funny business on the Mangaung road

After 18 years of ANC rule the good side has gone vrot

– Pieter-Dirk Uys, Cape Times, 30 October 2012

Some of us are wondering how the long walk to freedom became the potholed road to Mangaung. Somewhere on the way there was a diversion via the Polokwane Cul-de-sac. What should have been a freeway is way off course.

The president of my country, whose main focus is the protection of our Constitution which enshrines every citizen’s freedom of speech and expression is suing, of all things, a cartoonist.

Our 18-year-old democracy dawned more as a surprise than something expected, because we all realized back then we had been on borrowed time. But somewhere between the Mbeki threat to impose his renaissance and Malema’s threat to kill for Zuma, our country lost its government. Since then we have had a ruling party embroiled in bitter and fatal squabbles about power and wealth. The captain is clearly not on the bridge of our ship and icebergs are closing in. We’re back on borrowed time.

It was also time to put anger into the magic mixer of satire, where it can be churned up into a tasty pasta of fury and fun, with humour as the cherry on the cake. A play, inspired by William Shakespeare’s classic The  Merry Wives of Windsor, was the result. Its title says it all: The Merry Wives of Zuma. The focus was not the present president and his first ladies, but a political pantomime about a town called Zuma and the municipal skirmishes and corruptions that go hand in hand with an election and the struggle to provide a better life for all.

A production was planned to open in Johannesburg in April. It faltered due to confused theatre bookings, which is a great shame as it would have been on stage during the tsunami of the Spear saga. After that extraordinarily unsubtle political squall, civic attitudes changed quickly. Financial commitment to mount a professional production evaporated. Would I at least change the title of the show, I was asked.

It was now no longer seen to be correct to make fun of the president. Déjà vu? Wasn’t this where I started in 1973? Was history once again repeating itself and turning tragedy into farce?

No, the cancelled production of a play due to political unease is not tragedy and a president with failing leadership qualities is not a farce.

Such things can happen in a democracy. It will never be perfect because democracy is been touched by so many human hands. All citizens’ fingerprints are on that silver chalice of freedom. All the speed wobbles of the last few months, from Malema to Nkandla, via the horror of Marikana, are not unexpected in a young nation.

Things can go wrong, but only once. After that, through repetition, it becomes a bad habit. Corruption become policy. The half-full glass becomes the toast of the time. The NP (Die Afrikaanse Nasionale Kongres) took 46 years to bankrupt South Africa. The ANC seems bent on doing it in 20!

Satire cannot detract from the dignity of a politician, unless that politician has abandoned his dignity.

Ridicule can only be successful when the subject lends itself to ridicule. Having been unemployed since 1975, when the then “democratically-elected (whites only)” government through censorship and “self-regulation” made it impossible to perform my dramas, I went into the trenches of absurdism.

It was time to make the point through caricature, impersonation, drag and outrage. This worked for many years, because I was lifting my leg against the nationalist culture of my own Afrikaner tribe.

In 2012 things have also changed radically for this middle-aged satirist in a multicultural democracy. The glowing red line of racism creeps closer as issues become more racially fuelled. Having fought this virus all my life, I will not now be labelled a racist because of my anger and disappointment with the politics of the day. During the Struggle there were — besides a very visible target to destroy — many freedom fighters who inspired. It was good against evil and one was happy to give the good side the benefit of the doubt.

After 18 years the good side has gone vrot. Racism is being flaunted as the weapon of choice against criticism. The reality is now my white mouth commenting on the actions of a black government. That crosses the red line. Instead of stepping back, I prefer to step sideways, hopefully one to the left and not two to the right.

Let the young generation of comedians and satirists take the bull by the horns. Let the Malema lookalike sound like Malema and the Zuma clone giggle like Mshowerlozi. If I do, it’s a feeble impression of something Leon Schuster does so much better and with greater abandon.

Having been in the trenches for the last 40 years means my gagbag of experience also can reflect four decades of political ups and downs.

The creepy familiarity of the Protection of State Information Act and the randy scandals of Nkandlakosweti bring to mind the memories of states of emergency and the homelands fiasco. So my new show on the road to Mangaung must also be a reinvention, an African Renaissance if you like. I can attempt to reflect where we are. But you have to decide where we are going. Call me the Ha-ha-History Channel.

For the first time in a theatre there will be a preshow announcement NOT to switch off cell phones. Put them on silent, yes, but keep them open and ready to Google when those incomprehensible moments happen on stage. A Verwoerd with his apartheid gift from God.  A Vorster with his 180-day detentions. A Group Areas Act supported by those 700,000 white voters out of 27 million people? Bizarre facts and ridiculous figures from not so long ago that so few today under the age of 30 seem to be familiar with and those old enough to remember and be in charge seem to have forgotten.

If our youths do not know where we come from, how can they celebrate where we are going?

How can they detect the reinvention of bad politics which is always in the wings of democracy ready to reclaim its place as policy? History doesn’t repeat itself in South Africa. It just rhymes — from apartheid to tripartite.

The road to Mangaung  should not be jammed with much more than trucks ferrying in the food, Champagne and whisky.

“It is our time to eat” might be the new slogan of the political elite, but under the tables might be hidden the weapons of revenge that will spew chaos into the debates of the ANC’s trivial pursuits. The fear of what can go wrong at Mangaung must not be ignored, but how often have we not reached the edge of the cliff, a mere step away from implosion. And then when we look down, the cliff is gone?

This is time for the ANC to listen to the people. The women in the squatter camps. The men on the mines. The children in the streets. The students without books. The fathers without jobs. The mothers without husbands.

The next general election lies ahead. Mangaung will either be a mess, or a mass embrace of a failed leader. Either way it seems we will have no government till 2014, because the ANC will again be fighting each other for positions and money. The aluta must continua, not with violence but with jokes, with cartoons, with satire, with healthy contempt for the rotten and inspiring support of the good.

Hopefully the balance remains 49 percent anger versus  51 percent entertainment. Come laugh at your fear and it less fearful.

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articles from 2012