William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

Time for the media to catch a wake-up over the EFF

It’s easy to forget that 94 out of every 100 voters in the May general election did not choose the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). Were one dependent only on the South African media, one would easily come away with the impression of that statistical reality being reversed.

For such is the media enchantment with the antics of the EFF. For such is their obsession with every move of its leader, the red-bereted, self-styled Commander-in-Chief, Julius Malema.

Reacting to the accusation that this media publicity is aiding an organisation that is at its core both anti-democratic and violent, the journalistic response is a stock one. They do not decree what is news, they say, they merely cover it.

It’s not that simple. The media has become as dependent on Malema as he is upon them. They feed off one another. The EFF is exciting: lots of colour, movement and sound. Malema makes for good sound bites and even better visuals. He preens, struts, rants and issues incendiary threats.

This works well for a media that over decades has been dumbed down and starved of resources, that on the whole is better at the delivery of entertainment than it is at the interrogation of ideas. Passively, with virtually no introspection, the media follows an EFF-scripted storyboard.

The result is chilling. Our politics is no longer about ideas, debate and social bargaining between competing interest groups. It is about making the loudest noise, the most dramatic gesture. The official opposition, the Democratic Alliance, with almost four times the electoral support that the EFF has, gets a quarter of the publicity. That’s because they don’t lay on a spectacle but plod away at the unexciting business of the parliamentary process.

One can illustrate the secret infatuation of many journalists and commentators by means of a simple device. Superimpose over the features of Malema in our newspapers and television screens that of another pudgy crypto-fascist, the late and largely unlamented Eugene Terre’Blanche, head of the right-wing Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB).

There are lots similarities between the two: racist rhetoric, uniforms, spurious military ranks, violent threats, messianic delusions and fiery oratory. Like Malema, Terre’Blanche also railed against capitalism and promised to deliver his people from penury.

The tactics, too, are similar. In 1993 Terre’Blanche and his mob drove a truck through the glass entrance of the Kempton Park Trade Centre, where the pre-democracy talks were being held. They jeered and jostled the delegates, sprayed graffiti, and pissed on the furniture.

A month ago Malema and 300 of his supporters were evicted from the Gauteng legislature with teargas, batons and rubber bullets, after forcing their way inside to protest their eight MPCs being evicted for wearing EFF uniforms in the chamber. The EFF mob did pretty much everything the AWB did, including heaving rocks through plate glass, setting off fire extinguishers, and smashing historical artefacts.

While it is not clear from the noticeably muted reportage of the incident whether the EFF, too, urinated on the furniture, there was an ugly sexual aspect to the buffoonery that outdid the AWB. A female mannequin, swaddled in a disposable nappy and labelled Zuma, was paraded about. Photos on social media but inexplicably not in the mainstream media show EFF louts making suggestive hand gestures at the mannequin’s crotch.

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The media used to give Terre’Blanche a mercilessly torrid time, and rightly so. In contrast, many journalists seem to be afraid of Malema and treat him with kid gloves. While Terre’Blanche was unanimously identified as dangerous if allowed to thrive, the attitude to Malema is indulgent, even approving. He is viewed at worst as if he were a mischievous schoolboy — occasionally inclined to bullying, but essentially harmless.

Surely, however, there is one thing that we all should have learnt from our schooldays: that bullies (and wannabe revolutionaries) thrive on such indulgence, seeing every civility as weakness. The only way to deal with bullies is stand to up to them.

It does not matter much whether one subsequently loses the confrontation. It is a truism, but bullies are cowards. They mostly don’t want to seek victory at the cost of a bloodied nose or worse, not even in a scrap that they are confident they can win. Far preferable to bluff and intimidate one’s way to victory.

Malema’s antics in Parliament last week are part of a considered strategy. It’s high profile, low risk and it is against a target, President Jacob Zuma, who is loathed by most media commentators, although not by 62% of the electorate. Hence, predictably, a lot of the commentary has been of the “yes, but … ” variety. Yes the EFF was outrageous but Zuma provoked them with his intransigence.

ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe has been widely derided for his assessment, but this time he has it right: The EFF are fascists and are out to cause anarchy. As he said, it’s time to wake up and smell the java.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye

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