Teletubbies come to play in Parliament

It began when someone called the Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane a sellout.

The speaker of the National Assembly, Baleka Mbete, had barely begun to investigate the incident when the DA’s John Steenhuisen accused someone in the ranks of the Economic Freedom Fighters of committing the crime.

“Ask that teletubby over there,” he said, while hand-gesturing in the direction of the EFF’s benches.

The incident took place during a debate on higher education in the National Assembly on Tuesday.

The EFF’s Mmabatho Mokause wanted to know which member was being called a teletubby. Mbete asked if Steenhuisen was referring to a member of the House.

“Madam Speaker, I couldn’t work out if it was Tinky-Winky, Laa-Laa or Po, but I withdraw,” Steenhuisen replied.

The answer was, of course, obvious. Anyone who paid close attention to popular culture in the late 1990s would have known instantly, that if Steenhuisen was pointing to the MPs dressed in red, the EFF, then the teletubby in question was undoubtedly Po.

Steenhuisen may have passed Parliament’s security vetting, but he would not have passed the Metropolitan Police Special Branch’s test. These officers were reportedly asked to name all four of teletubbies to see whether they were up to speed with popular culture.

As Steenhuisen withdrew his remark, the legitimacy of the EFF’s complaint remains unknown. But teletubbies were indeed a controversial bunch.

During the teletubbies’ heyday, the religious-right in the United States and Poland accused Tinky-Winky, the purple-coloured, handbag-clutching fiend, of promoting homosexuality among impressionable children. That the childlike creature did not exude masculinity did not help defuse the situation. Science, it seems, had not caught up with commentators in those early years.

The bigotry did not end there.

Laa-Laa, the yellow tubby, was said to be mentally challenged. The good people of the internet surmised she must have come from an institution called “Laa-Laa Land”, a reference to a torturous Bulgarian home for children.

Having checked ableism off their list, critics of the babies’ show returned to their favourite pasttime: homophobia.

The actress who played the teletubby to whom Steenhuisen undoubtedly referred, Po, had a successful career in TV after the Teletubbies ended. Pui Lee Fan later played a lesbian in the BBC series, Metrosexuality. Conspiracy theories about her TV alma mater’s true agenda, abounded.

Dipsy. Oh, Dipsy. The green teletubby will forever be remembered as the one who broke up the foursome. The show ended when this character decided to try his luck in Hollywood, although the size of the market for alien-looking men with TV screens on their stomachs at the time remains unknown.

The teletubbies’ set went from being a shrine to a swamp in a similarly disappointing way.

Teletubbies was filmed on a farm in Warwickshire, England. The owner of the offending patch of land was fed up with all the trespassing after filming ended in 2001 and turned it into a pond.

Understandably, some have asked whether Steenhuisen’s remark was an innocuous jab or whether it was a sign of a deeper, darker agenda. But Steenhuisen has probably been punished enough: any young person knows the Teletubbies theme music was the most sinister of all.

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Sarah Evans
Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans interned at the Diamond Fields Advertiser in Kimberley for three years before completing an internship at the Mail & Guardian Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane). She went on to work as a Mail & Guardian news reporter with areas of interest including crime, law, governance and the nexus between business and politics. 

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