Every Friday, Daily Maverick brings you some of the stranger happenings from South Africa and further afield. This week: solemnity by order of the law.
Earlier this week, Sky News reported that China had signed into law strict regulations on the speed at which the national anthem had to be sung. The tempo, authorities reasoned, had to be monitored, on grounds that it was increasingly being sung in an “un-solemn manner”.
Well, we all know what kind of tomfoolery breaks loose the second you don’t ensure the national anthem is consistently sung with the requisite solemnity. I myself and at least 30 of my 1987 classmates have gone for decades, unchecked, knowing the potentially calamitous fact that Die Stem can be sung to the tune of Liewe Heksie and vice versa, and look at us now, wreaking havoc on the citizenry every chance we get. We happen to be planning a class reunion and I have it on good authority that not everybody in our year went on to catch a husband, at least 16 of us went on to have less than four bonny blue-eyed children, another five or six turned out gay, bisexual or worse, and perhaps most disappointingly of all, at least four of us became journalists.
So it’s understandable that China, which has already banned the anthem from being sung at weddings and funerals – although I do wonder what could be more solemn than a funeral – is preparing additional restrictions with consequences for those who place it, according to Sky, in a “damaging situation”. Exactly how fragile is this anthem, that it must be – again I quote – “universally respected and cherished” in order to survive? I’m pretty sure I recall Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika having its share of detractors, but judging by the number of YouTube shares, it seems to be doing just fine, despite being divided among multiple countries as a post-liberation anthem. And – despite some decidedly un-solemn performances – Enoch Sontonga doesn’t seem to have struck anyone with the proverbial lightning bolt.
The problem, apparently, is that according to China’s state media, there has been “chaos” recently, where people have laughed as the song has played, with others making a “ruckus”. Well, we won’t mention names, but we can think of a few people who might want to watch this and learn when there’s booing going on. You can’t force respect. You have to earn it.
The need for control is a natural human impulse; in fact, being deprived of any control over oneself or one’s environment can have lifelong negative consequences for the psyche. Strangely, though, the impulse seldom stops there. To this day, the world is full of bizarre laws that still exist, relics to more controlling leadership, or forgotten slips of legislation that have simply remained, gathering cobwebs, because they have never been actively challenged.
China, we have to say, does set a precedent for farcical legislation. You don’t get to set government regulations on reincarnation without knowing a few things. Controlling the influence of the Dalai Lama is one thing, but I’m not sure how the authorities are expecting this process to work. I’ve long thought that the true meaning of damnation is to be stuck in a government department for all eternity, but I’m struggling to picture the administration of the soul.
“I’m sorry, sir,” says the celestially appointed bureaucrat, sounding bored. “We have nothing under that name.”
“But I sent it years before my death!” says the poor soul, wringing their hands.
“We need form 34765 and four black and white ID photographs,” says the bureaucrat in a monotone. “Next!”
“No wait!” says the monk. “Please wait. Is there nothing you can do? I no longer have a body to photograph.”
“Sorry,” says the bureaucrat. “It is not on file. If you don’t have your documentation you will need to lodge a dispute. You have to queue at gate 4.”
“How long does that take?”
“A dispute can take up to three centuries to process.”
“But I just queued for months and that queue is even longer! It could take years! And that’s before the dispute starts!” protests the departed. “This is really not how the reincarnation process is supposed to… ”
“Gate 4. Next!” The window slams shut.
The poor soul proceeds to gate 4. They queue for a further seven years. By the time they get to the front they are emaciated, broken, drooling. They can barely remember what they are there for. They stagger towards the front.
“Help,” they say. “I applied to be reincarnated in 2006. I queued for several months at Gate 12 and was told my application was lost. I have been sent here and I fear my chances at successful transmutation have forever been lost. Please can you help me?”
“Sorry,” says the assistant (I use this word generously). “Gate 4 closed in 2018.”
The departed looks at his watch. “But it’s 2017!” he says.
“Yes, but we leave in 2018,” deadpans the assistant. “We close now.”
“That makes no sense,” says the departed. “Can’t you please look for my file?”
The assistant looks at the departed.
“Come back in 2022,” she says dispassionately. “Bring four black and white ID photographs and form 34765.”
China is not alone in its penchant for absurd laws. You’ve probably heard that there are strict regulations on chewing gum in Singapore where only gum of therapeutic value – ie dental or nicotine gum – is allowed in. Fun fact: Jamie Oliver has called for similar laws elsewhere, irked by chewing gum in public places, which anyone who has ever stood on soggy gum or, worse, stuck an unsuspecting finger in it under a chair or table will probably understand. (Seriously, who are you gum chewers and why are you doing this to us? One day – one day I will find you and make you sit still with a finger in your own gum while Ras Dumisani sings you the Chinese national anthem. All 12 versions, I swear.)
There are other, stranger laws too, where you’d least expect them. In 2007, a law prohibiting sticking a stamp depicting the Queen upside down, on grounds of treason, was voted the UK’s most ludicrous. In Vermont, a woman has to get her husband’s permission in writing if she wants dentures (yes, really). In Utah, it is illegal not to drink milk (pity the lactose intolerant). In Texas, it is illegal to drink more than three sips of beer while standing up. (Good thing everyone attending frat parties is educated – it must help with the counting?) Texas, mind you, deserves its own chapter for strange laws: criminals are required to give their victims 24 hours’ notice before committing a crime. In Leadership, By the Book, author David M Atkinson cites a number of peculiar US laws that firstly appear to have been signed in for reasons unknown, and then inexplicably survived. Among others: in Kentucky, it is illegal to transport an ice cream cone in your pocket, while in Massachusetts, mourners at a wake may not eat more than three sandwiches. In Oklahoma, it’s illegal to have a sleeping donkey in your bathtub after 7pm (I’m dying to know what circumstances sparked that one.) And in Tuzsyn, Poland, Winnie-the-Pooh is forbidden in playgrounds, because authorities say he’s a bear of very little… clothing. According to them, his skimpy outfit is inappropriate for children.
Closer to home, there are some equally perplexing African laws. In Kenya, it’s illegal to walk around with no money in your pocket – making one wonder who’s at fault if you get robbed. In Burundi, a ban was enacted on jogging after Pierre Nkurunziza claimed in 2014 that it was a cover for subversive activities.
What all these laws have in common is the irrational desire to control, through tighter and tighter measures, the uncontrollable. Which makes one wonder when it will sink in: if you are losing your grip, let go. Because laughter isn’t always the best medicine. DM
Marelise van der Merwe and Daily Maverick grew up together, so her past life increasingly resembles a speck in the rearview mirror. She vaguely recalls writing, editing, teaching and researching, before joining the Daily Maverick team as Production Editor. She spent a few years keeping vampire hours in order to bring you each shiny new edition (you're welcome) before venturing into the daylight to write features. She still blinks in the sunlight.
"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine