MPs’ fancy dress sends the wrong messages

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Have you noticed how each year the J&B Met seems seamlessly to meld into the opening of Parliament? Everywhere there are beautiful people decked out in fantastic finery competing to be caught by someone’s camera. And just as the J&B Met hasn’t got much to do with horse racing, the opening of Parliament hasn’t got much to do with democracy.

At a push, I can see why party-goers might want to get dressed up in spectacular frocks and frolic about in the harsh Cape Town sun with horses. But I fail to understand why men and women who are the elected representatives of some of the poorest people in the world would not feel just a tad uncomfortable swanning around in finery that looks as though it costs the equivalent of at least one year’s pension payments – and all in celebration of another year in Parliament.

Perhaps I was just overwhelmed by a sort of “Gordhan” moment – which lasted for over an hour – but for me last week’s opening of Parliament seemed to scream “gravy train”.

In this gravy train context there is considerable danger of the parliamentary precinct being seen more as Grand Central Station than the setting for democratic battles to protect the rights and interests of South Africa’s citizens and in particular the rights and interests of the most vulnerable of those citizens.

It might just be that the parliamentary pageantry is deemed a necessary distraction from the tedium of the State of the Nation Address (Sona). Could it be that there is a positive correlation between the increasing tedium of this annual address and the fantastic frocks on display?

But how is it possible that the president of one of the world’s youngest and most vibrant democracies cannot come up with the sort of prose and enthusiasm that appropriately celebrates our status?

There are plenty of reasons for introspection: we are dogged by dangerously high levels of unemployment and every day the media contains extensive coverage of violent protest in some or other corner of the country.

Perhaps it is the realisation that we have not achieved as much as we would have liked that subdues President Jacob Zuma’s speechwriters. Perhaps it is a sense of fatigue or embarrassment about being at the centre of so much of the discussion about corruption that dulls Zuma’s delivery.

Right direction

Next year the president and his speechwriters might consider dragging in one of the thousands of tourists who stroll along the streets outside Parliament to tell a more compelling story about our country’s progress and to remind us that, despite the slowness of progress, we are heading in the right general direction.

One of the great things about living in Cape Town is not so much having easy access to the J&B Met and Sona, but bumping into so many tourists and listening to them remind you of how great the country is and how far it has come in the past 20 years. It is not that South Africa has become so comparatively cheap that delights them; it is the efficiency of the services and the world-class facilities on offer across the country, as well as the friendliness of the people. This is what ensures so many of them keep returning each year.

And as the speeches get better – or even sooner than that – perhaps the various political parties could do something about toning down the fancy dress element of the opening of Parliament. It is not as though parliamentarians are in need of, or even deserve, a “grand night out”. They are extremely well paid and often able to use these extremely well-paying jobs to get access to even better-paid ones in the private sector.

And “gravy-train” couture really does send out the wrong message. That message is: “I am here not to serve you but to promote my own interests, to brightly feather my own nest.”

Does nobody, other than the minister of finance, see the benefits that would flow from some signs of humility from our ruling class? Recall the powerful impact that Pope Francis had when he wore a simple white gown and slippers for his inauguration last year. It was a clever tactic that has helped substantially to boost the Catholic church’s flagging support among people who were offended by its excess.

So perhaps next year’s look could be a little less “gravy train” and a little more “committed parliamentarian”.


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