William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

Election ecstasy: Old foes kiss and make up

Mangosuthu Buthelezi and Julius Malema. Helen Zille and Jacob Zuma. When traditional foes start making nice towards one another or echoing one another’s opinions, it’s clearly the end of the world as we know it. Or else, it’s a general election year and they’re scrambling to ingratiate themselves with voters.

Inkatha Freedom Party leader Buthelezi and Economic Freedom Fighter leader Malema decided this week that they had more in common than a tendency towards bellicosity and the word ‘freedom’ in the names of their parties. They would during the run-up to the election, they have agreed, cooperate to allow free political activity, especially in the often volatile rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal, oppose bias by the state broadcaster and act against the abuse of state resources by the governing African National Congress.

Nothing controversial in any of that. What passed unremarked upon, however, and does have the potential for controversy, is that part of the joint statement issued afterwards, saying that the two had agreed on the issue of land restitution, that the ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ principle had not worked and that a “new approach” was needed.

Malema has always favoured nationalisation of the land held by white ”thieves” without compensation – the droll explanation doing the rounds is that the EFF acronym means ‘Everything For Free’ – while the IFP’s position is that the only flaw to the “willing buyer, willing seller” policy is incompetence and corruption in land affairs. Buthelezi himself has often warned that nationalisation will lead to Zimbabwean-style famines.

And a few years back Lionel Mthshali, a former KwaZulu-Natal premier and now leader of the IFP in KwaZulu-Natal legislature, “questioned the sanity” of those who rejected the “willing buyer, willing seller” principle. “The IFP believes there are no credible alternatives to the principle. We do not want to go back to apartheid-style forced removals or revisit any other form of land grabbing … none of these solutions inspire investor confidence or promote productivity.”

Asked whether there has been a shift in IFP policy, Henry Combrink, the party’s shadow minister on agriculture and land affairs, said that as far as he was aware there had been no change but that he had not attended the meeting between the two parties. He referred me to IFP Deputy Secretary-General, Professor Themba Msimang, who did not respond to calls.

This could all be just another EFF electoral play, since the phrasing of the statement has the hallmarks of a typically canny Malema finesse. It leaves enough wriggle room for the self-styled “commander-in-chief” to claim while on the electoral trail that Buthelezi has now fallen in behind the EFF battalion on the land issue, something of a coup if it were true, while not actually spelling out any of the bothersome details of the supposed agreement.

The genial meeting between the IFP and EFF leaders and their apparent rapprochement is fascinating since in many ways the two are the antithesis of one another. They are the oldest and youngest leaders of political parties; the one is a liberal federalist and the other a confiscatory neo-fascist; Buthelezi preaches racial reconciliation, while Malema delights in taunting minority groups; and finally, while Buthelezi, despite the bitter and bloody battles with the ANC in the 1990s, values deference and politeness, Malema is often derogatory or chillingly threatening.

Malema in the past often mocked the IFP leader, including calling Buthelezi “a factory fault”. Buthelezi, in turn, has described Malema as “an ill-bred brat whose behaviour is not only un-African but crude by the standards of any culture in the world”. But, hey, now they are best pals, with backslaps all round.

Also this week finding unexpected common cause were Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille and President Jacob Zuma. They responded in similar vein to Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula, who had described the national soccer team Bafana Bafana, following their loss against Nigeria, as “losers” and “useless”.

Zille denounced Mbalula’s “horrific” slur and berated the minister for “humiliating” the team. Compared to Zille’s hyperbole, Zuma was more understated. He said that whatever various (unnamed) people were saying about the team, Bafana had “improved greatly” and deserved the nation’s continued patriotic support. Poor Mbalula, slapped down by both the leader of the opposition and the leader of the country on the same day, and that for telling the truth, too.

Whether its political reconciliation between old foes, land restitution or hapless footballers, ‘tis the season for some opportunistic populism all around.

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