Over a Barrel
If the Almighty and I were acquainted – which, sadly, we are not – I would, I am sure, reserve most of my prayers for the inadequacies of my own life. But I know, after just three weeks based in Parliament, that I would regularly be moved to seek heavenly intercession for Marthinus van Schalkwyk, leader of the National Party and official leader of the opposition.
I say “official” leader of the opposition for two reasons. One, because that is what Van Schalkwyk is, given that the NP has the second- largest number of seats after the African National Congress and no longer serves in a government of national unity. Two, because the real leader of the opposition is Tony Leon of the Democratic Party. Seven DP MPs make their National Party counterparts look like 80 feather dusters.
My prayers would be appeals for mercy. I would ask that Van Schalkwyk be relieved of his excruciating predicament – and that the rest of us thus be relieved of witnessing or having to report on it.
What prompts my concern for the man?
My compassion was most aroused in a mini-debate which Van Schalkwyk called 10 days ago to air his view that someone from the private sector should be put in charge of the government’s entire policy for growth, employment and redistribution.
This, of course, was intended to be music to the ears of, among others, new converts to the virtues of market capitalism, like myself: when in doubt, privatise or put some mean bastard from business in charge. The debate was also designed to win approving nods from assorted centre- right parties in the West – and probably also to win a few more dollars, marks and pounds for the NP’s campaign in next year’s general election.
So Van Schalkwyk rose on the floor of the National Assembly to hoist high the NP’s new flag of rational, non-racial capitalism, and to marshal all wandering souls to it. But why, I wondered as I peered down from the press gallery, are the young man’s hands shaking so?
At first, I thought it was just the usual nerves. But as he continued his performance, I began to seek explanations elsewhere.
Could it be that he was even less convinced about the wonders of the market than I? Could it be that someone else had put him up to it? Perhaps someone had said to him: “Kortbroek, listen, man, this is what we’ve got to say these days, so you just go and say it … No, no, no, don’t worry about what it means. It sounds good. Just go and say it.”
Another reason for Van Schalkwyk’s bad case of nerves sat directly across from him. Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, who, as his whiskers get whiter, looks increasingly like a slightly irascible and ageing seal, charitably buried his head in some papers rather than watch.
But it was Mbeki’s job to respond. And when he did so, it was withering. Were the government and Parliament supposed to give control over monetary policy, fiscal policy, labour policy, trade policy – in fact, just about every kind of policy of any consequence – to an unelected figure from the business world? Because that was the implication of what Van Schalkwyk was suggesting – if, that is, he had thought through his proposal at all.
Ooo, gats. Marthinus Christoffel Johannes van Schalkwyk’s flag stopped flapping.
It is only one incident in Van Schalkwyk’s brief career as leader of the opposition. But, according to veterans of the parliamentary hack corps, it is fairly characteristic and helps explain why, though his party may remain in opposition for some time, his career as leader of the opposition seems destined to remain brief.
In fairness to Van Schalkwyk, he has an almost impossible job. He heads a party which, to the extent that it has achieved any respect at all, has done so only for selling its own odious soul. But the NP’s past sits like a monkey on its shoulder, mocking its attempts to assume any dignity or moral weight. As a consequence, it has become more hindrance than help in deciding the issues of the day.
“Freedom of choice” sounds like a pretty good basis to object to Minister of Health Nkosazana Zuma’s clampdown on alcohol and tobacco products, but the NP threatens to discredit the argument by adopting it, as it did in a press release of August 2.
Sipho Mzimela, recently dropped as minister of correctional services after his fallout with the Inkatha Freedom Party, may well have made “racist and paternalist decisions” in government, but who can credit it when the accusation comes from the NP (July 30)?
We may fear that the employment equity Bill will “re-racialise the workforce” and provide for “the re-introduction of the principles of apartheid and discrimination”, but can we be confident about the motivation behind our fear when it is shared by the NP (July 29)?
Government policy may be “creating a framework for worsening race relations” because it is making “skin colour more important than merit, skills or talent”, but who the hell can believe it if the NP says so (July 28)?
And we may sometimes get the impression that the “ANC-controlled government deems the human rights of murderers and other criminals, especially [their] right to life, personal safety and security, to be of more importance than those of law- abiding South Africans”. But when the NP says it (July 27), we can be forgiven for losing a little confidence in our view.
For might we not now be in agreement with a party which criminalised the state itself and came to rely for its survival in government on murder, arson, torture and fraud?
If the Almighty and I were acquainted, I might say: “Brethren, cast aside these qualms and rejoice for, lo, the sinner has repented.”
But the issue is not as simple as that. The NP, its disingenuous reinvention of itself and its fresh- faced young leader are obstacles to the kind of direct debate we need.
As an official opposition the NP is pathetic. Its imposture in this role means that policies and ideas are not contested with the vitality this country needs. Moreover its persistent pretence at relevance means, regrettably, that ideas can frequently not be assessed for their quality; instead, they are often judged on the basis of who has voiced them.
This seems likely to remain the pattern until voters have the good sense to consign the NP to richly deserved oblivion.
Monica & co … needy, not seedy
When the Monica Lewinsky scandal first broke, the female reaction brought to mind the name of Courtney Love’s self- published, pre-makeover fanzine: She’s Not Even Pretty. Look at her big hair, we snorted, her messy body, her anguished beret. The Donna Karan bow. And a smile that, noted several dentists, bore the marks of third- degree gum disease.
Women, Lewinsky’s most vociferous detractors, tried to cloak their loathing in worries about the good of the country, but the hatred directed at Lewinsky from her own gender was practically a chemical reaction.
Some women have it, this negative charisma. Paula Yates, for instance. There is nothing that could happen to Yates, not even the death of her lover, that would make other women like her because “she’s not even pretty” and she doesn’t like us.
Like Lewinsky, Yates used her sexuality to get ahead – a sexuality that women, going by standards set by men and their magazines, did not feel she had any reason to believe in.
We look at the car crash lives of Lewinsky and Yates, these brash, needy, seriously damaged women, and feel the same contempt as we do for women who eat take-away food on public transport.
On top of this is the body image problem: Lewinsky “entrapping” Bill Clinton with her low cut blouses. Yates spilling out of her funeral dress.
There is the sense that a woman who cannot control her breasts cannot control her life. That is why, despite reports of her nymphomania, Grace Kelly will always be seen as an elegant woman, whereas Geri Halliwell is, by definition of her body, sluttish, brash and needy.
In the hall of needy, bosomy fame, Lewinsky’s forebearer was Marilyn Monroe.
At least Jack Kennedy had good taste, we sneer. Well, in the vernacular of the popular mood, Monroe was a dumb, fat girl too.
In drawing comparisons between the tangled love affairs of Lewinsky and Monroe, there is one obvious difference: sleeping with movie executives is clearly more empowering than sleeping with the president of the United States.
The support of Clinton by US feminists has been akin to the wife whose husband fools around blaming the other women, never him.
In the fall-out of the affair, Lewinsky has made several public relations blunders that have cemented the feminists’ distaste.
For a start, there were the glamour shots, exclusive to Vanity Fair, of Lewinsky lounging in the tall grass, like the Eve Arnold photographs of Monroe.
More significant, however, are the rumours that Lewinsky is considering a deal with Revlon, a cosmetics company associated with pre-feminism.
Everything about Lewinsky’s alleged affair with Clinton is pre-feminism. It harks back to an era when women were not supposed to have sexual pleasure, when sex was a non- reciprocal act, a selfish male encounter with echoes of master-slave relationships.
Certain shameless women – Halliwell, Monroe, Drew Barrymore – have the power to make heterosexual women question their sexuality. Lewinsky, however, drives home the very worst humiliation a woman faces as a heterosexual being – being madly in love with a man who “allows” you to give him blow-jobs. Keeping as a memento, not love letters or jewellery, but a semen-stained dress.
The FBI profile of Lewinsky said that she was born to be a stalker. But we all are. It is just that most of us manage to repress it.
There is a story about Fawn Hall, Colonel Oliver North’s glamorous, paper-shredding accomplice.
Revelling in her post-scandal celebrity, she sent a letter backstage after a Bruce Springsteen concert, asking to meet him. Half an hour later a roadie returned, very shamefaced, and handed her a note. It read: “I don’t like who you work for. I don’t like what you did. I don’t like you. Get lost.”
As a citizen off the United States, part of me does feel that the threat of Clinton’s downfall would be a tragedy for the country. He has reached out to the multi-ethnic community in a way that Wasp Reagan and Bush-ism did not.
I want him to be a success because I want a liberal Democrat in the White House. But as a woman, I look at Lewinsky and think this: “I don’t like who you work for. I don’t like you. But I do like what you did.” Lewinsky may be a dumb, fat girl. But she got the president.