I did something the other night that I haven’t done since I was a kid. No, not wet the bed. I went to the circus. It was set up on a nearby field and I didn’t have anything on so I drove down there but it wasn’t that kind of circus so I came back home and got dressed. I do apologise. Islamic fundamentalists made me say that. Ever since Charlie Hebdo, I clutch at anything to lighten my mood. It’s not easy being a satirist these days. One can die laughing.
It quickly became apparent that the circus was a metaphor for South Africa. For a start, it was a pale imitation of what I remember it to have been. I don’t mean the country was better off under apartheid. It was just a convenient way of … oh, for heaven’s sake, leave it.
When the circus came to Durban, I remember the Big Top as being cavernous and wildly exciting. There was the smell of sweat, sawdust and marijuana. And that was just my family.
This Big Top was barely bigger than something you might expect to find at the Sodwana Bay campsite over Christmas. And it didn’t just seem smaller because I’m three times the size I was when I last went to the circus. It’s smaller because, thanks to selfish animal lovers, the arena no longer has to accommodate lions and tigers and elephants. The flying trapeze has also been done away with. Perhaps all the artists plummeted to their deaths over the years. Better than being retrenched, I suppose.
Word on the street is that one can buy anything from a second-hand car to heroin at the circus these days so I went over to the trailer advertising coke and sweets and asked for a beer. There was a clown behind the counter. Not the kind you find behind almost every other counter in this country, but a real one. In full merry prankster makeup. He said they didn’t sell beer. I waited for the punchline but there wasn’t one.
“You must be one of those clowns who laugh on the inside, right?” I said. His harlequin eyes hardened. Maybe he was just a sad old man who got drunk earlier and passed out and his mates painted his face without him knowing.
“Whaddya want?” he said. It was probably the wrong moment to mention heroin so I bought a small bag of popcorn. It cost the equivalent of an early model Maserati. With what I thought was a comically exaggerated flourish, I presented my ticket to another clown standing at the entrance to the Medium Top. He said something in Afrikaans. I don’t know if it was funny. I doubt it.
I was expected to find my own way to my seat, much like we are expected to find our own way in the new South Africa. May we still call this the new South Africa? Of course we may. If the president can blame load shedding on Jan van Riebeeck, we can pretty much say whatever we want. Just as long as we wiggle our hips when we’re saying it.
The tent was less than half full. This wasn’t surprising. It was, after all, a Friday night, the one night of the week when people do their drinking at home. Saturday is the night that fathers take their families out. Sometimes with handguns, sometimes to the circus.
The red velvet curtain parted and another clown appeared. This should be good, I thought, chucking popcorn down my throat. But it wasn’t so much a rousing “Welcome to the greatest show on earth!” as it was a grim litany of warnings and disclaimers about cellphones, handbags and our personal safety. Not a single joke. Unless that was the joke. Welcome to the circus. Careful you don’t get robbed or raped. Ha ha. Punchy Punchinello needs to work on his introduction.
With the audience suitably terrified, the ringmaster stepped through the curtain and began going through the motions of running the show, much like Jacob Zuma does when it comes to running the country.
Almost all the acts were by people who looked very much like they weren’t from this country. There’s probably something in minuscule print on the back of the tickets that says if you’re a Home Affairs official you agree not to arrest the artists until the end of the show. I tried checking but it was too dark to find my ticket. I think I might have eaten it. Tasted fresher than the popcorn, I reckon.
The main act, which recurred throughout in various forms, consisted of half a dozen Chinese people doing some crazy balancing stuff. Then again, most mornings I find getting out of bed and walking to the bathroom to be a fairly crazy balancing act.
They made me think of our finance minister and his balancing act, but then I couldn’t remember who our finance minister was this week and lost interest in the analogy.
After our future minister of sport and his staff bowed and smiled and graciously accepted a smattering of applause, three black men in tight pants came cartwheeling into the arena. I quickly stuffed my wallet down my trousers and went into a defensive crouch. They also looked as if they had wallets down their trousers. However, they didn’t seem to care about us in the cheap seats and, much like our civil servants, had a party of their own. Unlike our civil servants, they were supremely fit and agile. There was humour, intelligence and effort in their performance and this country would be a lot better off if the ANC had them in the top six.
Then it was the animals’ turn. When I was a kid, this would have been the time the band kicked it with blazing trumpets and dramatic drum solos while black slaves – fresh lash marks clearly visible on their naked backs – scuttled about erecting metal barriers between the all-white audience and the beasts that growled and prowled and once made me soil my shorts.
The curtain parted and four goats sauntered out. I thought maybe they had wandered in off the street but they turned out to be the next act. There was also a lama with the airs of an alpaca. She seemed not to want to get too involved and simply stood around trying to look cute. She reminded me a bit of Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson. The goats didn’t do anything that a four-year-year old child couldn’t do. If you’re going to have goats in your circus, you’d better make damn sure they can do card tricks or play a musical instrument.
I remember, as a boy, the high-wire act being a genuinely death-defying stunt with the tightrope walker so high up you could barely see him. This one was four metres off the ground. She had two of her comrades tracking her in case she fell and sprained an ankle. Jacob Zuma has a more impressive high-wire act, although he does have the NPA, one or two judges, several businessmen and most of the cabinet waiting to catch him.
There were some dogs as well. One of them, some kind of poodle, jumped over something. I quickly lost interest, as did the dogs. They should have dressed the clowns up as housebreakers and had the dogs chase them round and round the arena before bringing them down and tearing their throats out. If there’s one thing we need more than laughs, it’s catharsis.
When I left, I saw a couple of camels lurking round the back. Maybe they were security.