I'll fly away ...
GLYNIS O’HARA finds out why Jennifer Ferguson, the singing MP, is going to live in rural Sweden to pursue kinder, gentler things
`I’M really sorry people think I’m a flake, I think I’m very grounded,” says Jennifer Ferguson, MP, singer, composer and pianist of note.
“The problem with the media is that you always get soundbited and things are taken out of context, so, sometimes, when I read what I’ve `said’, I myself cringe. I know I’m not a flake and the work I’ve done - the songs, the music, the plays - makes that clear.
“Anyway, I use language incompatible with the media.
I speak in metaphors, which is seen as unpolitical, politically naive, et cetera.
So if, on those grounds I’m a flake, at least I’m a snow flake, of complex design and reflecting light!”
Sitting in the peaceful Gardens restaurant near Parliament, squirrels ran around our feet and dappled sun shone through the oak trees as she talked about the criticisms levelled against her and the (unconnected) decision to resign as an MP and go and live in Sweden - for now.
For the first time ever, she was easy to miss in the crowd - she has cut her trademark explosion of long red hair down to pageboy length. It’s quite a shock - in a faddish world the one thing that could be relied on to stay the same was always Jenny’s striking head of flaming hair. But it was really heavy, she says, and besides, it’s not an irreversible change because hair does grow again. Not a bad metaphor for her entry into and departure from Parliament.
“I do think the African National Congress has been enormously imaginative and courageous to put artists in Parliament,” she says. “Who else would do that? It’s an opportunity for creative ideas to become concrete in legislative practice.”
She resigned, she says, simply because she wants a different kind of life for herself now and to work creatively as a musician again.
She’s at pains to point out that she is not leaving South Africa. “We’ll be living in two countries. The Dala Floda creative centre near Rttviki in Sweden and Cape Town will be our two bases. It’s not either/or, it’s both.”
Her husband, Swede Anders Nyberg, has intermittently worked with choirs in this country since the 1970s, living and working in places like Guguletu and Athlone, “He’s as passionately involved here as I am ... It’s ironic, he never lived on the white side of South Africa and now he’s married to a white girl, once `the other side’.”
There’s long been a strong connection between Sweden and anti-apartheid activists - “Bishop Tutu is among those who goes there often.” And it hasn’t just been about funds and allowing exiles in. “A lot of life commitments and friendships were made. I don’t know why we captured the Swedish imagination, but I think what helped a lot was the ability to share song. There’s a huge choral tradition in Sweden, as there is here ...” She is the 78th MP or senator to leave the first post-apartheid Parliament of 490 members. Six have died in office. Moves to diplomacy or business, expulsion or suspension account for other departures.
“I knew I wouldn’t stay in Parliament for long. It was just a matter of knowing when to leave, and I have a sense of having hit a ceiling.
“I thought I could contribute and, I must say, I was cautioned by theatre director Barney Simon - who said I’d be eaten up - that it would be too harsh an environment for someone who operated on intuition and on heart and didn’t speak purely political language.”
But Barney was for once proved wrong, she says. “I received a few scratches and bruises and a lot of love bites (there go those metaphors again), but I wasn’t eaten up. It’s been an incredible opportunity for learning in an extraordinary time among extraordinary people.”
However, she’s landed up really disliking the “authoritarian, patriarchal, bureaucratically turgid Westminster system”. Essentially, there’s been “no real transformation there as yet. We’ve got to find other ways for people to be truly part of government.” These might be “getting Parliament and MPs out into the people and really getting the people into Parliament, as well as reflecting South Africa’s cultural identity, not the Westminster culture, in the actual functioning of the institution”.
At the Dala Floda Centre, Ferguson and Anders want to run courses around music and creating music, as well as working “around the child, including the child inside. We’re still brainstorming to give form to our visions ... Dala Floda’s rural, it’s like moving to MacGregor in the Cape, only with a more sophisticated infrastructure.”
Known for once wanting to sing a speech in Parliament, she’s also recently been in the eye of a parliamentary storm around the abortion debate.
She attended Parliament on the day of the vote and abstained. ANC MPs had been told to stay away if they disagreed, as the vote was on party, not personal conscience, lines.
She’s keen to point out that she did not vote against the abortion Bill, but chose a middle ground. “I just think that in between the two buttons we had to press, of `yes’ or `no’, there’s a vast and complex ethical landscape ... I think the Act has put an Elastoplast over a deep and searing problem at the heart of humanity.”
The brouhaha over her vote took some time to die down, with threats of disciplinary measures. But in the end nothing happened.
Most of Ferguson’s time in Parliament has been spent working in the Portfolio Committee on Arts, Culture, Language, Science and Technology. The National Arts Council Bill, the one the arts community has been awaiting for years, is likely to be debated this session. What does she think she’s achieved in Parliament? “I think I’ve contributed good ideas, other than on arts and culture. There’s a convention of sticking to your committee area and I don’t see that as necessary.
“I raised some issues that I hope made people on both sides of the House think. For example, I still feel we should look at ways to transform the defence force, perhaps into an instrument of the RDP. And there’s the big global issue of how to carry out disarmament without sacrificing jobs and income.
“There was also the question of breaking through the barriers between ministries, getting them to talk to each other. The Sarafina II scandal would never have happened if arts and culture had been consulted. The Portfolio Committee was never asked, and we’re just around the corner in the corridors.”
But back to the future: Once in Sweden, Ferguson wants to invite South African musicians over to participate in projects. She has a secret desire to sing Bach in a choir. “I want to be one of many voices, to practise the art of choral singing, which is listening to the person next to you, not yourself. I want to do that, to cut down on ego for a while.”
“Not that abortion is wrong - it’s neither right nor wrong - but the 20-week cut-off point, for a foetus affecting the social and economic life of the mother, is unacceptable - that’s every child. It must be 12 weeks. Also, there’s been so little preparation for it. There should be a massive, national education campaign covering sex education, Aids and gender politics ... We also have to make men aware that they must take responsibility for their semen and possible ensuing fatherhood.
“There’re also potentially issues of social control. In the East there’s a disturbing trend of aborting far more female foetuses than male.”