The Cape of clowns

The “Cape Doctor”, the vicious south-east wind, might be blowing across the Peninsula. But it is having no sort of cleansing or curative effect on the malodorous morass of Western Cape politics.

The man at the centre of the latest political folly, for the third time in a year, is Peter Marais - provincial Premier and former Cape Town mayor, fundamentalist Christian who hired out his services as a prison warder turned preacher at R500 an hour, and self-proclaimed champion of the coloured people.

Marais is becoming just as much of a liability for the African National Congress - which has a cooperation pact with his New National Party - as he was for the Democratic Alliance.

NNP boss Marthinus van Schalkwyk has been noticeably quiet on the issue. Van Schalkwyk knows Marais’s value in a party on the skids, and backed him to the hilt when the DA expelled him last year.

But he must be anxious about the effect on his party’s newfound relationship with the ANC, probably the only hope NNP leaders have of a political career beyond the next election.

Marais’s gay-bashing outburst this week, in response to allegations of sexual harassment, has severely embarrassed the NNP’s new ally.
It has complicated the ANC-NNP drive to weaken the DA in advance of floor-crossing legislation that could overturn the DA majority in the Cape unicity.

But the ANC is now shackled to Marais, who is not about to bow off the stage. His antics - which include an attack on the Constitution as unbiblical during the 2000 municipal elections - seem to fascinate, rather than alienate, sections of the Cape electorate.

The banjo-playing, crooning Marais has always been a favourite in certain areas of the Cape Flats where he has built up a large personal following. Ever ready to pump hands and kiss babies, he would be welcome in any party if it could trot him out only at elections.

Almost to a day last year Marais’s plan to rename two of Cape Town’s streets sparked a vote-rigging furore. As an inquiry under corruption-buster Willem Heath found he should be probed for failing to act in good faith, NNP councillors gleefully exonerated him under their code of conduct and welcomed him back to office.

Tensions between then DA leaders Tony Leon and Van Schalkwyk boiled over and split the alliance. Marais stuck with the NNP; former premier Gerald Morkel - self-proclaimed admirer of movie star Charles Bronson - went with the DA.

Until the Marais furore this week Morkel and the DA were on the back foot in the province. Media reports suggested Morkel had an improper association with German fugitive plutocrat Jurgen Harksen.

With financial backing allegedly organised by fellow Nat, former business promotion MEC Leon Markowitz, Morkel took the fight to the courts - and lost.

Last week Markowitz had to testify about Morkel’s financial dealings with Harksen at an in-camera sequestration hearing.

Another flying brickbat centred around claims of illegal bugging in the provincial legislature while Morkel was NNP premier, although nothing incriminating was subsequently found.

One of the paradoxes of the propaganda war between the parties is that the NNP is now able to smear Morkel with things he did while still an NNP leader.

Marais is driving what many describe as “a personal vendetta” against Morkel, who in turn is questioning Marais’s record at the city council.

Enter former MEC Audrey van Zyl - a Morkel supporter who, following a NNP disciplinary hearing, lost her National Council of Provinces seat - and her legal suit against Marais for unwanted sexual advances.

With moist eyes Marais proclaimed his innocence and dismissed the claims first as a plot to unseat him through “sexual sleaze” - days later he upped the stakes by blaming “Democratic Alliance gays”.

This time it appears the Teflon politician may have bitten off more than he can chew. The outraged Cape Town gay community is determined not to let these comments slip; previous anti-gay quips were dismissed as buffoonery.

And after weeks of rumours in the corridors of power, more women have come forward with personal accounts of inappropriate sexual advances by Marais dating back to 1994. Others are said to be contemplating going public.

To go head to head with Marais extracts a high cost. He flippantly dismissed Van Zyl’s claims by saying they could not help but bump into one another in a crowded campaign bus. And she had not produced witnesses, he blustered last Thursday before announcing a R5-million counter-suit.

Why does this seem so easy in the Western Cape government? Many women employees in the provincial administration also privately complain of not being taken seriously in their jobs and of being labelled dametjies (little ladies).

Perhaps the double standards that former MEC Martha Olckers complained of in 1998 are still in place. Olckers lost her job following much publicity over an alleged affair with an official.

Being the politician he is, Marais was not shy to score points by coming out in favour of the Mother City’s gays after Durban mayor Raymond Mlaba taunted Cape Town by saying it could keep its “moffies and gays”.

If the ANC, which effectively elevated Marais to premier, thought it could do a better job than the DA in controlling him, it now must be having second thoughts.

Its anodyne statement that he is entitled to his opinions, and that the ANC-NNP pact leaves each side free to do its thing, implies an under-estimation of how much anger Marais’s statements have sparked.

The question is: if Britain’s Tories can sack the shadow Cabinet minister for rural affairs for joking in an after-dinner speech that Pakistanis are “10 a penny” in Britain - why can’t we do the right thing?

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