As South Africans are discovering, a state-of-the-art constitution does not of itself a thriving democracy make. Similarly, ersatz military ranks, red berets and Che Guevara slogans do not a revolution make.
The Economic Freedom Fighters love radical rhetoric but the seizure of “white” land and the nationalisation without compensation of the mines are, at this stage, just sound and fury. Or more accurately, piss and wind. That does not mean we should underestimate the insidious threat that the EFF poses to a young, fragile democracy.
Their antics during last year’s State of the Nation (Sona) address, which went way beyond robust heckling, elicited much public and media delight. Everyone, it seems, enjoyed seeing them thumb their noses at authority, especially when the derision is directed at a widely disliked figure.
At this year’s Sona the comic value of the EFF’s disruptions had worn somewhat thin. Even a mostly gullible and naïve media, which fuels EFF antics with the oxygen of uncritical publicity, is becoming a little disenchanted with the boorish behaviour.
So they should. Parliamentary conventions exist for a good reason. They form the framework of minimal civility that enables groups who loathe one another to be able jointly to conduct the affairs of the nation.
That doesn’t mean that MPs have to “respect” President Jacob Zuma, failing which government “would act”, as Free State premier Ace Magashule warned this week. It does, however, mean respecting the office of president sufficiently not to howl down Zuma whenever he opens his mouth.
But the EFF’s abuse of parliamentary procedure is a minor matter and not what should be exercising Speaker Baleka Mbete’s and Magashule’s minds. What they and the rest of us should be pondering is how MPs who have signed a sacred parliamentary oath to abide by and protect the Constitution can be allowed to get away with behaviour outside Parliament that flouts and undermines that very same constitution.
Last week Zuma’s controversial cronies, the Gupta family, went to court for an interdict forbidding EFF threats of violence against them and their employees at ANN7 television and The New Age newspaper. The court granted the interdict and also ruled that the EFF was not allowed to prevent these journalists from attending public political events, including those of the EFF.
The action was in response to the EFF warning that the “Zuptas” should vacate Gauteng and South Africa immediately, “otherwise the predictability of what could happen to them and any of their properties becomes a highly volatile matter”. If the Guptas did not leave voluntarily, they would be “physically driven out … by any means possible”.
Also, Malema had at a press conference made unambiguous threats against Gupta-employed journalists. They should “move out the way”, he said, for while the EFF “loved” its “sisters and brothers in Gupta firms … and don’t want you to be casualties … we cannot guarantee the safety of those printing The New Age and ANN7”.
In court, Malema disingenuously explained that these were not calls for violence, but simply part of robust political debate in an election year. This while knowing full well that his supporters were at that very moment demonstrating outside the Constitutional Court with placards saying “Guptas must go”, “We’ll fight fire with fire”, and singing “Shoot Zuma, shoot the Guptas”, the latest iteration of Malema’s favourite ditty, “Shoot the Boer, shoot the farmer”.
These are just the most recent of many examples of Malema’s incendiary demagoguery. Several years ago when Zuma was facing corruption charges, Malema infamously promised “to kill for Zuma”, if the courts dared convict the man. Malema has since expressed regret, not over the threat to kill but over his support for a man he now detests.
The kind of moral sophistry that Malema displayed in the Pretoria High Court is dangerous, it is slowly clouding the way that South Africans think. Increasingly, specious reasoning is being used to justify the unjustifiable, which of course is necessary if one wants to lay the foundations for revolutionary violence.
These are the people who argue that it is okay to burn art, on the grounds that it dates from the apartheid era. Or that is okay to torch a university bus because it is a “symbol” of student oppression. This is a slippery slope.
These are actions not far removed from an unhappy time in our recent past, when it was thought perfectly justifiable to place burning tyres over the heads of collaborators and informers, or even just those one disagreed with. For, as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela explained, “with our matchboxes and necklaces we shall liberate this country”. And liberation surely justifies anything?
The EFF has a thinly veiled contempt for democracy and the law. These are useful mechanisms only insofar as they can be used to camouflage the EFF’s totalitarian and fascist intentions.
Malema’s response to the Gupta verdict is emblematic of this. “We must respect the courts … [but] the better option is for them to go … I had planned a surprise for them. Because we respect the courts, we will postpone the surprise. Once we appeal, we will give them their surprise.”
The Congress of the People’s little band of MPs walked out on Sona because leader Mosiuoa Lekota said that they could not remain in the chamber with Zuma, a man who had betrayed his oath of office. It may well be that Zuma has done so, but no more brazenly and dangerously than has Julius Malema and his red-overalled brigade.
If Zuma is deserving of impeachment, so too the EFF.
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