That time I ran for political office

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Once upon a time, long, long ago, when I was a student at Rhodes (a university in Grahamstown, South Africa, which was named for good old Cecil the Terrible –

Zuma dick pick

“Umshini Wam” [“Weapon of Mass Destruction”] by Ayanda Mabulu, is a portrait South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma. Note his big hands.

– although white South African schoolkids during the apartheid era knew Cecil John Rhodes as a man who transformed Africa (which was true, actually) and became very rich and powerful (also true) and was a hero (not so much). Sometimes I wonder how teachers think about the stuff they cram into their students heads. Did the teachers of my generation believe what they taught – that pink-skinned adventurers were heroes, that trekkers and pioneers tamed unclaimed territory, and that the stories of Blood River and Thanksgiving had happy endings? Do teachers of any generation know when they’re lying, or care? Or are they the Sean Spicers of the classroom, expressing the opinions of their master without being in any way responsible for them? Do educators collude willingly in the production of  lemmings, or are they just doing their job? And when the job is done … how do they feel when they see ignorance elevated to power?)

To get back to the point of this piece – which I started to share a memory, not rant about social engineering – I just read a recent post by one of my favorite bloggers, Victo Dolore, who likes to ponder while she poops. During her sitting time this morning she remembered a day ruined by a misplaced button, and that got me thinking about the time a button very nearly did for me.

It was toward the end of my first year at Rhodes, when I ran for a seat on the Students Representative Council. It’s not usual for first year students to run for the SRC, but I was compelled to do so by my urgent yearning for Freedom.

Rhodes was a little more old-fashioned than most universities in those days, and women’s residences were locked at 8.00PM on week nights. You could stay out later, but you had to sign out and leave through the front door, and there was a curfew. There were always two students on duty to ensure compliance … unless you were one of their friends … which I never was, because I wasn’t cool enough … which is why I had to go into politics. (Maybe that’s how it all started for Ted Cruz.)

However SRC members were presumed to be Highly Responsible People, and also Leaders Of Tomorrow, so they got a back door key and could come and go as they pleased without signing in.

So I ran for office, which entailed attending dinners at various student residences, where I made stirring speeches about my fundamental amazingness and overall fitness for office, which I did about as well as you’d expect of an introverted fat girl with no clue about style. (Well, Abe Lincoln was also odd-looking and unfashionable, so I was in good company, although I didn’t know it, American presidents not being of great significance within the South African educational establishment.)

By the time I addressed the largest of the men’s residences I was feeling pretty confident, almost smooth, and I’d learned how to look directly at people in my audience without actually seeing them (seeing can be disturbing), and I’d practiced enough that I could talk without quavering. Also, I was wearing a new outfit; my mother had made it and mailed it to me especially. It was a chocolate brown skirt that reached just past the fattest part of my calves (in other words, it hid my knees!) and a nylon cream blouse spattered with dime-sized chocolate brown polka dots that was only a little tight across my ever-expanding bazoom.

My speech can only be described as enthralling. Every eye in the dining hall was fixed upon me. I had one friend in the audience who kept sort of flapping his hand in front of his chest, which was a teeny bit distracting, but when glaring didn’t make him stop I ignored him. When I was done, my listeners didn’t merely applaud me – they roared! They stamped their feet! They even whistled! It … was … amazing!

Then I turned back to the high table (where I was seated with various senior types and authority figures) and one of them leaned forward and softly informed me that the blouse button over my bra had popped open.

My mother always was unreliable in sizing buttonholes.

Anyway, it was worth it because I did, in fact, get elected. There were five open seats, and five people running, so my victory was pretty much inevitable. I was put in charge of publicity, which mainly involved getting high  on the smell of marker pens while creating posters advertising university events. I did the words – puns, rhymes and wordplay, all hilarious, of course. My friends provided the artistic touch, under the leadership of the only artist among us, who specialized in inserting genitalia into everything she drew – but very subtle, of course. We had to make a lot of posters; apparently they were popular wall art in the dorms.

The SRC meetings were cool. They took place at night and ran well after bedtime, and featured lots of impassioned debate, voting, questions by the student media, demands by student activists, and donuts.

And when there weren’t meetings, I was free to let myself out through the back door and roam around the campus and the town, in the magical dark, alone.

Rhodes-University-Drostdy-Arch-resized1

The Drostdy Arch stands where Grahamstown’s main street runs up against the campus. It’s also the scene of my sole attempt at student political activism. After Steve Biko’s murder, my girlfriends help me hang a huge poster that asked, “Who’s Next?” (It was also supposed to list the names of other victims of police brutality. I don’t remember why it didn’t … We may have run out of time, or maybe we simply didn’t know who they were – this was before Google, remember.) The hottest guy on campus, who was also editor of the student newspaper, was impressed (!!!!!) enough to invite me to cram myself into his VW bug with a half dozen or so real student activists, and we parked a short way away and waited for the police to come tear it down, so that he could photograph their heinous attack on free speech, and sell it to a real newspaper. When they didn’t come, I suggested popping around the corner to call the police from a public phone and complain. This didn’t go down well. They didn’t go so far as to eject me from the car, but I was definitely shunned for lacking ethics. Funny thing, though … the guy with the camera is now rich and successful and hangs out with plutocrats, while scruples and ideals have come to encrust me like barnacles.

 

 

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About Belladonna Took

Into my second half-century and still trying to figure out what to be when I grow up. Born South African, naturalized American, at constant risk of losing my balance and landing ass-first in the Atlantic. A wife, a mom, a daughter and sister, kind of a grandma. Until recently a full-time dog rescuer, now more concerned with rescuing myself. User of dog hair as accessory, decor and garnish. Technical writer, strategic thinker, occasional entrepreneur. Voiceless poet and storyteller. Born again Christ-follower and former missionary schoolteacher chewing on some uncomfortable questions. Ignorer of rules, challenger of assumptions, believer in miracles. Skeptical libertarian, equal opportunity despiser of politicians and assholes. Gonnabe gardener, wannabe beekeeper, Monsanto-hating tree-hugger. Morbidly obese chocaholic, with a horse I don't ride because I might break him, and if not he would probably break me.

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