Par­lia­ment’s the­atre of thrills of­fers some mean com­pe­ti­tion to the pro­fes­sion­als

Business Day - - LIFE -


Some art forms are bet­ter suited than oth­ers to re­flect par­tic­u­lar his­tor­i­cal mo­ments. In this col­umn a few weeks ago I sug­gested that pho­to­graphs cap­ture the hor­rors of King

Leopold’s Congo in a way that even lauded SA ac­tors such as John Kani and Robert White­head can­not.

But then last week I cel­e­brated Matilda: The Mu­si­cal as a piece of the­atre that speaks to “our time”.

If read­ers are han­ker­ing for a re­turn to the vis­ual arts scene, I apol­o­gise; there will prob­a­bly be more the­atre next week. Per­form­ing artists could do with greater cov­er­age in this coun­try’s me­di­as­cape. Af­ter all, they have to con­tend with what must be an in­stinc­tive thought among their fel­low cit­i­zens: why pay money and leave home to see a show when there is plenty of “re­al­ity drama” on the screen? It’s lo­cal, it’s packed with in­fight­ing and in­trigue, and it’s free.

I am talk­ing, of course, about footage from the Na­tional As­sem­bly. We have come a long way from the dull and drowsy days when the par­lia­men­tary TV chan­nel was launched in the 1990s.

Now you get fist­fights, swear­ing, snide com­ments and raised fin­gers aplenty. Our par­lia­men­tar­i­ans are a reg­u­lar bunch of en­ter­tain­ers.

It’s al­most too ob­vi­ous to de­scribe MPs’ an­tics as “the­atrics”. But if you tease out the im­pli­ca­tions of the metaphor, some in­trigu­ing ques­tions emerge. Are these ac­tors merely fol­low­ing a pre­dictable script — even when their ac­tions seem most spon­ta­neous? Who is do­ing the di­rect­ing and stage-man­ag­ing be­hind the scenes? More­over, what kind of the­atre are we watch­ing? Is this the­atre of the ab­surd? The­atre of cru­elty? Baroque the­atre? Poor the­atre? Such terms may be in­voked loosely, and their ca­sual mean­ings can in­deed be ap­pro­pri­ate. Yet a more sub­stan­tial en­gage­ment with the gen­res yields other in­sights.

By re­sort­ing to vi­o­lence, chant­ing or deroga­tory ges­tures, MPs are fol­low­ing the tra­jec­tory de­lin­eated by dramatists and the­o­rists of “the ab­surd” and of “cru­elty”, for whom lan­guage ul­ti­mately fails to make mean­ing out of the in­signif­i­cance of hu­man life and the per­pet­ual con­flict it en­tails.

This is philo­soph­i­cally in­ter­est­ing, but not a world­view likely to spur pro­gres­sive leg­isla­tive ac­tiv­ity by one’s ap­pointed rep­re­sen­ta­tives (they are not elected by the peo­ple, note, but de­ployed by po­lit­i­cal par­ties).

Then there is poor the­atre. The red re­galia adopted by the EFF is sup­posed to evince the party’s sup­port for im­pov­er­ished South Africans, but their per­for­mance is the op­po­site of what Jerzy Gro­towski in­tended when he coined “poor the­atre ”— they de­pend on cos­tumes, pageantry and melo­drama. In the hal­lowed halls of the Na­tional As­sem­bly they are as far re­moved from the re­al­ity of those they claim to rep­re­sent as ac­tors be­hind the ar­ti­fi­cial frame of a grand Baroque prosce­nium arch.

Pol­i­tics is never re­ally about di­a­logue or au­then­tic­ity. It is all about spec­ta­cle.

The tragi­comic par­lia­men­tary episodes that have been cir­cu­lat­ing for a few days — the EFF start­ing a scuf­fle, Malusi Gi­gaba wav­ing his pinky fin­ger — may call to mind bad mem­o­ries of Ja­cob Zuma’s vis­its to par­lia­ment when he was pres­i­dent. But we dare not be lulled by Cyril Ramaphosa ’ s ci­vil­ity and re­spect for par­lia­men­tary pro­to­cols into for­get­ting how low the ANC mem­bers of the Na­tional As­sem­bly had sunk by this time in 2017.

And while the DA may paint it­self as the only party that has con­sis­tently “acted well” in par­lia­ment, its mem­bers have hardly been ex­em­plary fol­low­ing this week’s fra­cas. One can con­demn the racial crass­ness of Julius Malema’s snipe at John Steen­huisen with­out al­to­gether dis­miss­ing cri­tiques of “white­ness”, as var­i­ous prom­i­nent DA fig­ures have done. Just be­cause Malema mis­uses the word, it doesn’t mean it loses its cred­i­bil­ity.

The con­cept has been used as an an­a­lyt­i­cal tool since the early 1990s. You know, back when Dan Plato, whom the DA has en­dorsed for a sec­ond stint as mayor of Cape Town, was a card-car­ry­ing mem­ber of the Na­tional Party. To quote the ti­tle of Melissa Steyn’s 2001 book: White­ness Just Isn’t What It Used To Be.

There are any num­ber of books and ar­ti­cles that DA MPs could use as “white­ness stud­ies” primers. We don’t want our par­lia­men­tar­i­ans to read from a script — but they could at least read.


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