Umbrellas can cover a multitude of political sins
THERE is nothing more sinister than people with umbrellas. Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian dissident who defected to the West in 1969, poured scorn from exile on the regime that once persecuted him. On September 7 1978, at a bus stop close to London’s Waterloo Bridge, Markov felt a sting in his leg. He turned to see a man hurrying away with an umbrella. A micro-engineered pellet, containing the poison ricin, had been injected into his thigh from the umbrella’s tip. Within three days, he was dead.
Fictional villains have added to the umbrella’s ghoulish reputation.
Batman’s long-standing adversary, the Penguin, was a wobbling, waddling, hoodlum, who never left his lair without an umbrella. The Penguin’s umbrella was more than a rain-repelling accessory: it could fire bullets, double as a bullet-proof shield, or expel toxic gases. It could even serve as a parachute.
A more sympathetic parasol-wielding vigilante featured as the arch-villain in a long-running Thabo Mbeki-era miniseries, Fiscal Judge Dredd (recently revived as Planning Man).
Portrayed by Bollywood heartthrob Trevor Manuel, this imposing “Master of the Future” was an adversary of, well, more or less everybody. He also nursed inner demons. In a notorious 2007 horror flick called Polokwane!, Fiscal Judge Dredd ran amok, berating photographers and trying to attack a journalist with his neo-liberal golfing umbrella.
Now South African opposition politicians have “umbrella fever” once again as a result of Saturday’s launch by Mamphela Ramphele of a fictional political party called Agang SA.
Democratic Alliance (DA) activists believe that apartheid was wrong; but they also believe that somebody else was responsible for it. (They are not quite sure who.) Meanwhile, African citizens are disinclined to vote for a party that is willfully forgetful about history. DA leaders therefore need shielding from the black historical chickens that may come home to roost on election day. Could Ramphele, they wonder, pull a chicken-repellent umbrella out from under one of her hats?
The need for such an accessory was first identified by United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa, who observed long ago that only an opposition “umbrella body” could counter a dominant African National Congress.
Two clues about the umbrella’s potential size and pattern were revealed in Ramphele’s address to the Cape Town Press Club on Wednesday.
First, her promise to “unveil” her policy platform during Saturday’s launch said a lot about the so-called party’s character.
Unlike real political parties — which argue about policy, fight over candidate lists, and elect leaders — Agang (according to its website) wants to put “citizens … at the centre of public life” by “having conversations across the country, to understand people’s needs and expectations for the future”.
Ramphele’s soon to be “unveiled” leadership team is probably made up of Mbeki acolytes. Associates of Moeletsi Mbeki’s Foundation for Global Dialogue helped set up the party. Pro-Mbeki intellectuals, and businesspeople who made money doing business with the Mbeki-era state, are likely to become funders. Agang will aim to cannibalise the electoral carcass of the Mbeki-aligned Congress of the People.
Second, Ramphele told the Press Club that, in certain petitions to the Independent Electoral Commission, her party would be “working as a team” with the DA. “Working as a team”, of course, could go much further than this.
The Agang life-president claimed earlier this year that the DA and Agang could form a “mutual umbrella”. As a result of her close personal relationship with DA leader Helen Zille, an informal deal might already have been struck.
Perhaps Ramphele has consented to serve as the black front for a DA-controlled opposition alliance? Such an agreement might look like a clever way to dig the DA out of its racial hole; but it is unlikely, in the end, to win over many African voters.
• Butler teaches politics at the University of Cape Town.