We want to see the president

RIAAN DE VILLIERS / EARLIER this week, I had to go into the City Bowl. Acting on a whim, I took my camera and wandered into the parliamentary precinct, hoping that the (partially moribund) seat of our democracy might cast some visual or other light on our murky political destiny.

I passed Garmor House, on the corner of Plein and Commercial Streets, where Maeder Osler and I met while working for the Progressive Party all of 50 years ago. This was after seven more PP MPs had joined Helen Suzman in parliament. The building is now nameless, and the entrance is heavily securitised — probably because it’s been colonised by some or other government agency.

Next, I took a good look at the deserted parliament building with its blackened, gap-toothed roof (torched, we need to recall, by a homeless and jobless guy who figured out – quite correctly – that it wasn’t functioning as it should). There’s a smallish – weirdly armless – bust of Mandela in front of the main entrance. Maybe it was the distance from the locked gate, but he looked rather worried.

Then I noticed some elderly people, gogos and khulus — complete with overcoats, Tutu-style caps, berets and kopdoeke, ZCC lapel badges and thick spectacles — in front of the gate. They said they were from Khayelitsha, couldn’t make ends meet, and had come to parliament to convey this to Ramaphosa.

Given that parliament isn’t in session, and the Pres is up-country fighting all sorts of political fires, their chances seemed slim to non-existent. I also gathered that they were demanding outstanding reparations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They seemed a bit dispirited, which is hardly surprising, since the TRC wound up its business more than 20 years ago. They also said they were waiting for more people.

I went into the security portal in the H.F. Verwoerd building to find out whether anyone would see the group, or accept a petition. Behind the scanners, a skeleton staff was visible. A policeman told me if the group had phoned ahead, someone would come out to speak to them and accept a petition or memorandum, but he didn’t know whether they had.

I said, it seemed pretty quiet around there — I supposed they were waiting for an influx of new parliamentarians. Soon, we were discussing coalition politics, and which deals might lever which parties into power. The parliamentary police, in turns out, are as uncertain about the outcome of the elections and our political future as ordinary citizens. In the meantime, the petitioners had regrouped behind the statue of General Louis Botha — ‘farmer, warrior, statesman’ — on his prancing horse, facing up Roeland Street.

When I returned from my appointment an hour or so later, a bus had indeed arrived, and the group’s numbers had swollen. Also, a few posters were going up. It turned out the petitioners were assembled by the NGO Khulumani, which ‘campaigns for truth, healing, and redress for those damaged through our apartheid history’.


One poster even suggested where they could find the money for the reparations. It seemed unlikely, though, that the Pres would locate and disburse it soon.

Eventually, a banner was unfurled, and the little demonstration got under way. Victory in this struggle did not seem imminent.

But then, things looked up a bit. A courteous young man with earrings (seriously), wearing a natty blue coat with epaulettes and a very long scarf, told the group he was from the President’s Office and had been tasked with receiving their memorandum, to which the Presidency would promptly reply. So its seems the Pres does take in memorandums. Whether he reads them is or writes the replies is another matter.

I was going to hang around to see how all this would play out. But then a seemingly benign gogo beckoned me over. Fixing me with a gimlet eye, she told me to either cross her palm and those of her mates with silver for the privilege of photographing them, or leave. So I left.

Except for this small flurry of activity, the whole precinct seemed to be in some kind of suspension, waiting for the  influx of new legislators. I suddenly realised that anything up to 30 per cent of current MPs, and an even greater percentage of cabinet ministers, weren’t going to return.

Just around the corner, at the entrance to the government garage, which way back when housed Cadillac limos with throbbing V8 engines and blackened windows bearing ministers in morning suits and wearing Homburg hats, a homely fire was burning on the pavement. Not sure Ben Schoeman would have stood for this in 1974.

Political posters had also been put to productive use.

On the way home, I bought a mutton salomie at Café Zorina in Paarden Island. The lady behind the counter asked: ‘You know it’s got bones?’ I remarked that their mutton salomies had contained bones since I first bought them from the original Café Zorina in Bree Street more than 50 years ago. Their curries are no longer cooked on a wood-burning stove, but they taste just as good. Well, almost.

This suddenly seemed like a very long time. Then again, it’s only about twice as long as those Khulumani people have been waiting for their reparations.

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