Friday, September 21, 2012

Peering into Parliament

Our next stop was a trip through Nerd Paradise: the South African Parliament.

The Parliament was in its legislative session but we arrived on a Monday – the day of the week designated for committee work – and the halls were quiet and empty.  I didn’t realize how quiet and empty until we saw the building under its normal circumstances (sneak preview alert!).  The hallways around the Welcome Center looked like any government halls: boxes of copy machine paper stacked against a wall, young staffers strolling out for a cigarette break or rushing from one meeting to the next.  The one very unique sight was a makeshift ballot box labeled "Parliamentary Choir Executive Elections Box: Only For Parliamentary Choir Members."  It was complete with a photograph of penguins.  My curiousity continues on the mystery behind that one.
Our guide was wonderful – his office was responsible for overall public outreach of Parliament, as well as tour groups.  He’d taken a break to lead our tour but returned to a huge task after we left: organizing a national tour of Parliament, who traveled (once a year, I believe) to hold hearings in regions of the country.  I think there would be a rush on tar and feathers if Congress ever decided to implement a similar outreach idea. 
The tour began in what we later learned was the old Parliamentary chambers.  Yes, that old Parliament - the one that made apartheid into law and established the most horrific racism in government I can even imagine.  I felt guilty about rushing to have our photo taken until I learned that the room is now used for good things, like caucus meetings and - only weeks before our arrival - a national tribute to the miners who were killed at the Marikana mine protest.  The room was also the site of an assassination in 1966.  A man disguised as a Parliamentary messenger stabbed Henrik Verwoerd during proceedings on the floor; our guide said no motive for the murder had been found, but since Verwoerd is considered the "architect of apartheid" (he once described it as "a policy of good neighbourliness"), I'm going to take the liberty of forming my own theories on motive.

My favorite part of the Parliamentary tour was the members-only library tucked into one corner of the beautiful building.  Because we were there on a slow day we got to spend time in here, looking at newspapers from across the country and - in my case - swooning over the details that make up any legislative process like journal records and ancient bound books of laws enacted by long-dead leaders.  I wasn't able to satisfy my curiousity about where that gorgeous spiral staircase leads, however.

The South African Parliament is made up of two chambers, similar to the U.S Congress.  The National Council of Provinces, which replaced what used to be called the Senate, was established by the new South African Constitution in 1996.  Wikipedia has a great summary of the details of the rights and responsibilities of this chamber.  It focuses mostly on domestic issues and the topics addressed by provincial and local governments across the nation.  Before the end of apartheid, this chamber served as the "coloured Assembly" because those in power actually established three "wings" of parliament so races would not mix.  If this angers you, you're beginning to understand why I got fury-related headaches every time I learned much about government and society under apartheid.
I picked a seat in the front row of the media's spot in the gallery...partly because I wanted to see it from their perspective and partly because our guide joked that we kept looking like a one-party government by often sitting on the same side of any aisle.
The NCOP doesn't get much media coverage, according to our guide, because they deal with the more routine issues that impact day-to-day life of South Africans.  The hot topics are usually covered in the National Assembly, and the media focuses their attention there.   Given the enormous size of the Assembly's gallery, I'm willing to believe it.

One particular moment of media coverage occurred here that no one can ever forget: this little announcement by former President de Klerk that he was ending apartheid and releasing Nelson Mandela after a 27-year imprisonment.
My favorite part of Parliament was the translators' booth, though it was rather boring and we only saw it through a window.
Though everyone we met in South Africa spoke fluent (and amazingly accented!) English, there are 11 official languages of the nation.  I wasn't able to find out how many translators it takes to make Parliament operate, but our guide summarized it easily: "it's a lot."
Click here for more photos from my tour of Parliament.

Want to see the South African Parliament for yourself, without the 40+ hours of airplane time?  Check out this virtual tour.

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