Sunday, February 22, 2015

A departy?

When I first left school, the section of the school magazine devoted to past pupils suddenly became of more interest.  There was a fascination in seeing who was marrying, who was fathering, and even who was dying. There was a section devoted to those who had attained the great age of 80 during the past three months.  In the 1950's, the list of surviving geriatrics was three or four names.  Today it spreads over pages.  It is a graphic indication of how our life expectancy has increased during my own life.

The result is that these days I get invited to more and more 80th  birthday celebrations.  Last night it was time to cheer an old friend, but the cheer was decidedly dampened by the announcement that ten days ago he had been diagnosed with lung cancer, that the cancer had metastasized, and that he had only days to live.He was there, looking pale and on a crutch because his sense of balance had been affected, but he greeted us all. Eighty close friends sat down to dinner in his home, after snacking our way through a mountain of oysters.  The wine flowed freely - his wife is a true connoisseur of good vintages - and the talk was loud.

Then the speeches started, and they were wonderful. His wife of 30 years spoke of the exciting times they had had together.  His eldest stepson produced some of the finest quotes from the ex-editor's writing, and made an interesting observation - in days past, the elderly usually  lived with their family, and death was a familiar experience, while sex was something unspoken and behind closed doors.  Today, sex is out in the open, and the elderly die in old-age homes so the young never experience it at close hand!

Then it was the turn of our 80-year old host to speak.  He used a microphone, but his voice was firm and strong.  He told us of his early life, of being tortured by his schoolmates whenever he spoke English in a predominantly Afrikaans area.  He told us how, when he was 10, images of the German concentration camps displayed in the window of a Jewish shop in his country town turned him into a hater of Fascism.  When he was 15, the story of a Russian escaping from a Stalinist prison camp in Kamchatka turned into a hater of Communism.  These two stakes in the ground had defined his political positions all his life.

His early life in Fleet Street had led to a series of alcoholic adventures.  He expressed his heartfelt thanks to the kind, warm people of Alcoholics Anonymous who had taken him in, dried him out, and returned him to life.  He told of returning to a career in journalism, of being given editorship of a prestigious daily and the public disturbances that followed his appointment, of his time as editor of the largest weekend paper with a circulation of over a million, and how he had successfully annoyed virtually everyone at one time or another. He closed by thanking us all for coming to his party, and he was certain that this was the last time he would see us.  Then he moved around the room, talking to each in turn, saying farewell.

I found it incredibly moving - so much so that when someone asked me how I felt about the party, I could only respond with a neutral "Most interesting!" He snorted.

But having had an opportunity to sleep on the matter, I have come to grips with the sadness of impending loss of an old friend.  I think it was a marvellous occasion.  How often have we thought at a funeral how limited was the picture of the dead one's life - this time we had had a picture from the heart and it rang with glorious truth.How often at the wake after a funeral had we reflected that the dead one would really have enjoyed the party - this time, he had.

I think there should be more celebrations like this.  We need a word to describe them.  Would "departy" fit the bill?

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The dangers of television

I rarely watch television.  We have a set at home. Once I tried to turn it on and failed.  I told my wife.  She said "Oh! I tried it three weeks ago and it didn't seem to be working then." It was repaired, but still gets little use.

When there was excitement about the State of the Nation Address, a friend, knowing of my telephobia, kindly invited me to join him and a political friend in observing the great ceremony. We sipped generous gins-and-tonic as we steeled ourselves for the event, and tried to get enthusiastic as the cameras showed dignitaries strolling self-consciously up the red carpet.  Finally the State President arrived in a very ordinary-looking van with what I presume were bullet-proof windows. After all the fancy black cars and 4x4s, it was something of a shock to see the presidential carriage so apparently modest.

Inside Parliament, there was a measure of chaos.  Various factions were chanting away -"Pay back the money" - "We love Zuma" - "Bring back the signal." The last became the operative call for a while, until the Speaker told Parliament's Secretary to turn off the jamming device and allow Members to talk to the outside world.

Finally, the State President rose to speak.  Soon, he was interrupted by an Economic Freedom Front speaker, asking a question in terms of one of the rules of the House.  The Speaker did not respond with a ruling on the rule, she merely informed him that the question was inadmissible.  This brought the leader of the EFF to his feet, to object to the effect that the rule cited by his fellow allowed a question, and that the Speaker's response was wrong.  Things soon got out of hand, with the Speaker ordering the Black Rod to escort the two EFF members from the House, them refusing to go (which was, in point of fact, breaking a rule of Parliament, to leave when so ordered by the Speaker) and the Speaker then calling in security to enforce her ruling - and the screen went blank, the goons stormed in, the whole of the EFF was bundled out, Zuma sat roaring with laughter at the spectacle, and the screen returned. (I later watched a video taken from the public gallery to find out what actually happened when the broadcast was censored).

Thus to the first real question - why was the whole of the EFF group removed?  The Speaker had only called on two of its members to leave. The remainder had every right to be there.  

When proceedings resumed, members of the Democratic Alliance were on their feet.  Who were these goons? Were they members of the police?  Neither the Speaker nor the Secretary of the Council of Provinces (who was joint chair of the meeting) would answer the direct question.  Finally the Secretary said she could not tell from where she sat whether or not they were police, and that was enough for the DA to walk out, joined by some other parties.  

Thus to the second real question - what were the police doing in the House, as seems most likely?  The police force is part of the executive arm of government, and have no place in the legislature.

The affair got under way again, this time with a half-empty house.  A member rose - Chief Mangosuthu Buthulezi, leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party, and he was allowed to make a rather rambling speech about what had happened being a disgrace.  The remaining members cheered, but was Buthulezi criticising the behaviour of the opposition or that of the government?  What he said could easily have applied to the latter.

Finally Zuma was allowed to finish his address.  He stumbled badly along the way, at one stage reading "1" as "I" before realizing his mistake.  Throughout he smiled and joked, and given the seriousness of what had just happened, I came to the conclusion that he must have been taking some form of tranquillizer.  Only a "happy pill" could have produced such a reaction in such awful circumstances.

Afterwards, I watched an interview with the leadership of the DA.  The most telling comments came from that latter-day Margaret Thatcher, our own Helen Zille.  The rules of the House had been broken in ways that showed clearly that the executive had absolutely no respect for democratic institutions. Others had broken the rules, too, but this did not excuse the executive for its breaches of the constitution.  If you wanted to seek the origin of the executive's intransigence, you need look no further than the president, who had broken rule after rule in his pursuit of power. The nation is clearly in a very bad state.

I did not sleep happily that evening. It comes from watching too much television.