Satire: Digitus Impudicus

Tom Rymour takes an irreverent look at political philistines, from Grace Mugabe to George W Bush.

There's a useful Russian word which covers a multitude of sins, transliterated as "poshlost" by the great Vladimir Nabokov, who attempted to define it in English. "Vulgar philistinism" is as near as we can get to the meaning; the word covers "the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive". A few instances will give South Africans some inkling of poshlost, without even mentioning the Kebble or Shaik families.

Think of all those costly Coega ads comparing our latest deep-water money disposal unit to the port of Alexandria. Why? Will it have a library to be burned by philistines? To trigger the trashing of an entire city and then stand by is poshlost, be it Maseru or Baghdad.

Consider the vulgarity of a sumptuous business jet; with an executive washroom to poo in at 40 000 feet. One cannot help wondering if the jet was bought simply to avoid the nicotine withdrawal symptoms suffered on scheduled flights and lift the politics of smoke-filled rooms to stratospheric heights. Insiders divulge that the big bird was originally named "Famous Grouse," but after pressure from Alec Erwin it was renamed "Fish Eagle" to promote one of our premium brandy labels. If, at cruising altitude, any passenger wants to display more poshlost than a Tretchikoff print, all he has to do is hurl accusations at imaginary enemies, play the race card when his dialectic back is to the wall and work to a covert Orwellian agenda of: "Curly hair good - straight hair bad."

Countering an immense tragedy with verbal aggression, mental confusion and a belief in fairies makes Mad Manto a vulgarian and a philistine. Nkosazana Zuma is guilty of poshlost by seeing no evil when she gazes across the Limpopo, where Grace ("Let them eat Food Aid") Marufu-Mugabe gets her groceries airlifted from Europe. In the near future, what will the widowed Grace do? After a career of pillage, she could always retire to the capital of poshlost: Lower Tuscany, aka Bryanston.

Sport is dirty enough without politicians; they bring added poshlost to the manly world of hitting balls with sticks. And talking of sport, a usually unreliable source tells me that Nconde Balfour is destined for a portfolio he will find more congenial - as Minister of Food.

Is Winnie guilty of poshlost? She's a stickfighter, granted, and a serial accomplice before and after the fact. But she actually takes the trouble to butter up her constituency, and is saved from the label by her utter contempt for a parliament responsible only to the president's office. The government printer's last annual report reveals that over 26 000 rubber stamps were produced, without saying how many went to ANC parliamentarians. For the very essence of parliamentary poshlost, it's hard to beat that oleaginous Manueline smirk, worn while awarding concessions to those who don't earn enough to pay tax.

What's even more vulgar than Montecasino's decor, Wilbur Smith's Egyptology or Rajbansi the toupee sultan? Politicians, of course, who regularly stoop to acts from which a madman would shrink.

Take George W Bush, who is a politician, and Osama Bin Laden, a certified madman. Imagine that a genie appears from a lamp looted in Baghdad and offers to grant Osama's dearest wish - provided he makes George W "Dubya" Bush head of al-Quaeda. Osama would foam at the mouth and castrate the genie with his scimitar. But what if that same genie were to offer George Dubya a guaranteed second term, on condition that he sponsored Osama's application for membership of the Republican Party? Why, Dubya would pick up the phone and run the idea past his daddy's oil baron buddies and his own spinmeisters. Because he is the very personification of poshlost - a provincial politician.