The sparring between poseurs in the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the ANC as to who has sole naming rights to a silly red beret is more than a Tweedledee and Tweedledum spat. It’s a warning that the coming general election might be uncharacteristically volatile.
A small portent was the Nkandla fracas last weekend, when ANC supporters attacked EFF members. In a brilliant bit of electioneering, the EFF announced a press conference that it would EFF hand over a house that they had built for an elderly woman and her grandchildren, who had been living in a hut just beyond the gates of President Jacob Zuma’s R206-million pleasure palace.
ANC members closed the road to EFF leader Julius Malema’s convoy and in the melee that ensued when he set off on foot, stones were thrown, rubber bullets fired and water cannon deployed. The poor gogo has her new house but now fears for her life, following threats to torch it.
In retaliation, the ANC apparently wants to refurbish the house of a family living next door to Julius Malema’s grandmother’s double-storey home in Polokwane. The pensioner concerned, understandably reluctant to being similarly endangered, has refused.
Such political theatre – full of drama but devoid of substance – is increasingly the South African norm. But however surreally amusing such incidents, there’s a dangerous undertone. One wonders, for example, no doubt a number of the “fighters” in the EFF foray to Nkandla were armed, entirely legally, and what would have happened if Malema had been injured by an ANC supporter’s missile?
There is a spluttering fuse of intolerance in our politics that threatens dire consequences, unless the government acts swiftly. Instead, until now, it has made matters worse.
Zuma reiterates constantly that the ANC has a divine right to govern “until Jesus returns” and that party supporters should guard against opposition reactionaries who “want to reintroduce apartheid”. This at the same moment that opposition parties are, it seems to many ANC supporters, provocatively gung-ho about slashing the ANC’s share of the vote.
Playing with fire is not confined to the ANC. EFF supporters have brandished banners displaying “the honeymoon is over for whites” at its party launch.
This is blatantly intimidatory, but there has been not a flicker of response from the police or the Independent Electoral Commission, nor outrage on the part of the media. Imagine, for a moment, if similar sentiments were expressed by a rightwing political party such as the Freedom Front, what the outraged response from officialdom and the editorial writers would have been.
Instead, news editors continue to fall over themselves to give Malema screeds of publicity, responding with Pavlovian alacrity to his every statement, no matter how incoherent, inane or incendiary. The obvious question is unasked: why do we allow an increasingly paramilitary organisation, complete with uniform regalia and military ranks, to masquerade as a political party?
The media unchallengeably has a public duty to cover the EFF, as it should on its merits any political grouping. But the lavish and unthinking news exposure given to Malema lacks awareness that the oxygen of publicity is not only worth millions to the EFF, but also has the potential to fan a conflagration. And the lesson to opposition groups is that the best way to get media attention is to threaten mayhem.
Many journalists seem to think that the EFF is all a bit of a fun, just some whimsical political comedy. It’s not. They are feeding a monster, a dangerous fascism, and it will, eventually, come back to bite.
To make matters worse, the South African Police Service on which we rely to maintain order, is poorly trained and trigger-happy. That no lessons were learned from Marikana, where in 2012 it gunned down 34 protesting miners, is shown by it this week in Brits shooting dead two people protesting failed water delivery, a third dying after “jumping” from a moving police Nyala.
The security services are also increasingly partisan. When Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille wanted to inspect Nkandla the same police that allowed the EFF through, stones and all, stopped her in her tracks and turned her back, saying it was for her safety. And last week some Mpumulanga traffic police were blatant about their political affiliations, cheekily wearing red berets instead of their regulatory caps at the ANC’s manifesto launch.
Paramilitary posturing, on the part of both the EFF and the ANC, is dangerous in the volatile climate of a general election. And history shows that it’s a short step from violent rhetoric to actual bloodletting.
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