Sunday, July 11, 2010

Protect the fragile, vital bond of the constitution

Jul 11, 2010 12:00 AM | By Marianne Thamm

Marianne Thamm: It's amazing how the constitution has crept up on us. At 14, the document and all it enshrines and embodies is a little younger than the country yet it has had such a profound impact on who we are as a nation.

Marianne Thamm

I hadn't heard such sexist humour since the '80s, the dark ages of South African comedy, when the circuit was populated almost exclusively by white, male comedians

Regarded by experts as the most progressive in the world and in turn viewed by some South Africans as "too liberal", the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa has not only helped to guide and shape the society we hope to live in, but it has also percolated into the way ordinary people think and talk.

And we're talking here about the great tides of ordinary, law-abiding South Africans who go about their lives on the periphery of the headlines, not those who tend to extremes and who hog the spotlight for mostly the wrong reasons.

I was reminded of this recently while watching a performance of From Africa With Laugh, performed by a collection of comedians from the rest of the African continent who had been invited to perform at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town.

In the line-up were Marty Kintu from Kenya, Chibwe Katebe from Zambia, Edgar Langeveldt from Zimbabwe and Lungi Pinda from South Africa who resurrected hilarious sketches from Mike van Graan's satirical series Bafana Republic.

And while each of the comedians provided unique comic views of the societies that had shaped them, what was hugely uncomfortable for local audiences was their archaic understanding of gender politics and women.

I hadn't heard such sexist humour since the '80s, the dark ages of South African comedy, when the circuit was populated almost exclusively by white, male comedians who thought nothing of generating cheap laughs at the expense of black people, women or any other group that fell outside of the dominant world view.

The guys from Africa were atrocious and at times even picked on women in the audience, commenting on their appearance or the size of their breasts.

Meanwhile, downstairs in the same theatre complex, a posse of South African comedians were making humour of an entirely different class.

There is a kind of sophistication, originality and intelligence to the quick humour of Ndumiso Lindi, Marc Lottering, Alan Committee and David Kau, for example, that does not need to shape itself around tired assumptions and threadbare stereotypes.

Besides, why alienate at least half of your paying audience: South African women who won't put up with lazy, cheap shots?

Anyone who argues that being politically correct stifles free speech and is a form of communal tyranny should compare the texture and depth of the humour created by our local comedians and that of the brothers from up north.

Being politically sensitive or correct does not suffocate creativity but in fact forces writers, poets, painters or comedians, those who choose to reflect on life, to think outside personal frameworks, to extend themselves and to at least consider the lives, views and sensitivities of others.

Another experience, by a South African lesbian couple interviewing prospective candidates for a position as a day mother, also illustrates the broader, silent impact of the constitution.

One of the candidates the couple was presented with by an agency was a Zimbabwean woman, a former teacher who had fled to South Africa and settled with her husband in Cape Town.

When asked whether she minded that they were lesbians, the woman terminated the interview with, "You are an abomination and even if this was the last job on earth I would not work for you."

The couple sat there unfazed by the response. They thanked her politely for her honesty. Such is the power of the Bill of Rights. In fact none of the South African candidates, even those who claimed to be deeply religious, said they had a problem.

Meanwhile, higher up on the food chain, it didn't come as a surprise when SA representative to the United Nations Human Rights Council, Jerry Matjila, recently refused to support UN efforts to protect homosexuals from discrimination.

Like President Jacob Zuma, Matjila (and others) might be old homophobes, but the fact that the president had to publicly apologise for a remark he made a few years ago is proof that the constitution is bigger than politicians and politics.

So, while the constitution might essentially be the foundation of this new country we live in, it also serves (even though we don't always acknowledge it) as a fine filigree of connection between us.

We should protect these fragile, vital bonds.

Sunday Times

Comments by Sonny

We will protect our Constitution!

There are those amongst us who are bent on destroying it!

Especially those cronies in the ruling party!

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