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Wednesday, 18 May 2011

‘I do’

Curious how we still assume that these are the climactic words in a wedding ceremony – when any one of the millions who like me were watching the Royal Wedding will know that the words are actually ‘I will’.  A modal verb of desire rather than one of action. 

The recent Royal Wedding was shown live on the main South African TV channel and watched – to my surprise – by many of my South African friends.  But they did not quite get why this was such an important national occasion.  One friend texted to ask: “What’s nice about watching 2 people getting married using the taxi-payers money?”  I love the idea of paying for the nuptials by levying a special charge on people who use black cabs!!  But then since South Africa has a president who is about to get married to his 5th wife I can see why state weddings might not have the same sense of specialness!

Our State President has been in the news recently not so much because of impending confections but because of impending elections.  Although they are local rather than general elections, 20 million voters across the country will be voting for municipal councillors and mayors.  I am not one of those 20 million but, since the day is a national holiday, I have been using it to contribute in other ways.  Together with Bandile, our 18-year-old intern voting for the first time, I joined hundreds of volunteers mobilised by the South African Council of Churches as an ‘election observer’.  We were in Orlando High School in Soweto this morning by 6.30am to check the polling station and see that the box was empty before it was sealed.  And we then had the privilege of watching the young, the old and the extremely old, exercising the democratic right for which they had for so long struggled.  By complete coincidence (honest!) we ended up at the same polling station as one of the leading ladies in that struggle – Winnie Mandela.  This only further reinforces my colleagues’ suspicions that I only ever do things when there is a TV camera or a microphone nearby!

Normally, the outcome of South African polls is not a matter of great speculation – at the last general election the ANC got 66% of the vote; it is no wonder that they get away with calling themselves ‘The Ruling Party’.  So I shall probably not be staying up all night to see the SABC results programme, even if my friend Eusebius is manning the swing-o-meter. 

But this time there is a slightly different tone in the air.  Local municipalities are responsible for the sort of things that no one cares about till they go wrong – waste collection, electricity, water, sewage.  But in the last few years they have been going wrong, and the usually passive voter , taken for granted by the ANC, has been taking to the streets in protest.  This country, we now know, can deliver a spectacular sports event to international standards.  And yet there are still burst pipes that go un-fixed, rubbish that lies festering in the streets, and communities that are without power for days.  Surely it cannot be that our politicians care more about the opinions of overseas visitors than of domestic electors? 

The protests are in some way reassuring for the future of democracy – people are no longer putting up with bad service.  But how will the vote?  Where will they put their cross, their electoral ‘I do’ on the ballot?  Up to now, people will tell you how fed up they are with ANC politicians but then continue to vote for the ANC.  But this is part of a pattern.  Despite incompetence and corruption, Congress ruled India for most of its first 50 years and the RPI ruled Mexico for 90.  Zuma looks even further ahead.  He recently claimed that the ANC would rule till Jesus returns!  But may be Jesus is coming sooner than expected – at least in a few towns and cities where voters can no longer be bought off with empty promises. 

At this point I have to confess that I was not watching Wills and Kate (and Harry and Pippa) on SABC but rather on the BBC because I was back by happy coincidence within her Majesty’s realm.   I was thus able to drink in, at first hand, the pomp and splendour and dresses and uniforms and sheer loveliness of it all.  I am not really much of a Romantic or a Royalist but on this occasion I indulged – and I am not ashamed to admit it.  As an image consultant if nothing else, I admire the ability of the royal family to help us feel good about ourselves.  You can see that for example in the reaction of my friend Bryan when he got a dose of the special dust as he greeted the Duchess of Cornwall to Myddelton House Gardens. 

I had watched the wedding from Devon, in a beautiful fishing village of Cawsand over the harbour from Plymouth and accessed by a charming toy boat.  In fact, everything about the place – the beach, the congregational church, the pubs, the main street and the bunting – was charming toy town.  I had to keep reminding myself that this really was England and not some Disney version of it. 

I had gone down there with my friend Shannon, en route not to the Royal Wedding but to a Real Wedding (an extra pun there for the Spanish-speaking readers!).  A former colleague of mine at CAFOD, Simon Giarchi was getting married the day after the Prince .  I do love the eccentricity of posh English weddings – the photo calls, the standing around for hours drinking but not eating, the random re-connections with people you have not seen for years, the speeches and then – most importantly the 1970s disco.  Can a wedding be complete without a ‘Dancing Queen’?  There were even plenty of kilts there courtesy of some Glasgow Italian relatives.  But thankfully there was not a re-enactment of the dramatic moment when the fat old queen in the skirt dies in the middle of an overly energetic reel – so on this occasion, at least, it was 1 wedding and no funerals. 

The trigger for the visit was in fact neither of the weddings but the 21st birthday of my god-daughter Myfanwy-May (aka ‘Vanny’).  We have always been close and I was delighted when she came to visit me in Rhino Camp and then later lived with me at the Garden Flat.  I recall one morning when I was letting some builders into the flat and Vanny came out of her room, dishevelled in a bath robe yet as beautiful as ever.  Then from the same room there followed a second beautiful 18-year-old girl in a nightgown; and then a third one in pyjamas.  The look on the builder’s face was a picture! 

Vanny has the honour of being senior god-child, the first in a long line, of beautiful/ charming/ intelligent/ entertaining children of various friends.  One of those parents once explained to me why I was such a popular god-father: “you’re the only person we know who actually believes in God!”  And I confess that I take the ‘god’ bit of being a godfather seriously.  I have actually had very little impact on the religious allegiance of my godchildren – Vanny announced at an early age that she was an atheist and then, even worse, chose Cambridge over Oxford.  Nevertheless, when 21 years ago, I stood in a church and made the baptismal promises on her behalf I replied with conviction to the questions posed by the priest:  “I do.”

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