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2 December 2016 22:08 (South Africa)
South Africa

Trainspotter: The ides of march – the EFF takes ConCourt

  • Richard Poplak
    HEADSHOT_Rich-Poplak_orange.jpg
    Richard Poplak

    Richard Poplak was born and lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. He trained as a filmmaker and fine artist at Montreal’s Concordia University and has produced and directed numerous short films, music videos and commercials. Now a full-time writer, Richard is a senior contributor at South Africa’s leading news site, Daily Maverick, and a frequent contributor to publications all over the world. He is a member of Deca Stories, the international long-form non-fiction collective.

    His first book was the highly acclaimed Ja, No, Man: Growing Up White in Apartheid-Era South Africa (Penguin, 2007); his follow-up was entitled The Sheikh’s Batmobile: In Pursuit of American Pop-Culture in the Muslim World (Soft Skull, 2010). Poplak has also written the experimental journalistic graphic novel Kenk: A Graphic Portrait (Pop Sandbox, 2010). His election coverage from South Africa’s 2014 election, written under the nom de plume Hannibal Elector, was collected as Until Julius Comes: Adventures in the Political Jungle (Tafelberg, 2014).  Ja, No, Man was longlisted for the Alan Paton Non-Fiction prize, shortlisted for the University of Johannesburg Literary Award and voted one of the Top-10 books of 2007 by Now Magazine. Richard has won South Africa’s Media-24 Best Feature Writing Award and a National Magazine Award in Canada.

    Since 2010, Poplak has been travelling across Africa, seeking out the catalysts and characters behind the continent’s 21stcentury metamorphosis. The coming book, co-authored with Kevin Bloom, is called The Shift

  • South Africa
Photo: Members of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) gather to march to South Africa's constitutional court in Johannesburg, February 9, 2016. REUTERS/Sydney Seshibedi

After two years of bitter wrangling, the matter regarding the exorbitant security upgrades to President Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla residence finally hit the Constitutional Court. The legal proceedings and their outcome—to be continued!—were not the only interesting part of a day that was proved a vindication of the bare-knuckle politic tactics of the ANC’s youthful breakaway faction—the Economic Freedom Fighters, and their leader, Julius Malema. By RICHARD POPLAK.

1. Prologue

Was today, Tuesday 9 February 2016, the most important day in South Africa’s nascent democracy?

Ah, but who are we to trifle with such questions? Those are best left for Clio, history’s muse, who is currently being lobbied heavily by the African National Congress, the Economic Freedom Fighters and the Democratic Alliance, all of whom are claiming ownership of this strange, heaven-sent day.

Think of it: the president of the whole damn country was in the dock. Would this happen in Turkey? In China? In Belize? In Britain? This triumph of the Democratic Spirit, while it nominally belongs to the South African people, actually belongs to the EFF, mostly because no one cares about the South African people. It’s all about owning the story, and boy, did the EFF grab the whole Nkandla scandal and fashion it into a high-calibre political Gatling gun. If on Monday there was some doubt as to whether Julius Sello Malema would one day run this country, it’s likely been dispelled by a year’s worth of maneuvers so deft that they culminated in a complex legal proceeding over which the EFF could excerpt no possible influence, pace hiring a lawyer and praying to the spirit of Matlock for a happy outcome.

Somehow, the big red Marxist-Leninist-Fanonian knew how it was all going to play out.

Props.

But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, we should jump back in time, to a morning gathering on the edge of Johannesburg’s central business district, on the fringes of a mining town that has died so many times it makes resurrection seem like business as usual.

2. Mary had a little jam

“Twenty cent Stuyvesants, Zuptas must fall,” says the cigarette vendor in Mary Fitzgerald Square. It is the EFF’s #EverythingMustFall/ EveryoneMustLeaveTheCountry march, aimed squarely for the bull’s eye of Constitution Hill. In many important respects, this amble through Johannesburg’s concrete canyons represents the kick-off of State of the Nation Address Week, the once sedate but now thermonuclear inauguration of the country’s annual political calendar. Last year we learned that in the Era of EFF, the opening of parliament was to become a battle for the keys to that august house. This year, the urgency has been kicked up a notch. Soon, municipal elections will take place. And there is the small matter of the #PayBackTheMoney hearing scheduled for 10am in the highest court of the land.

Everything begins somewhere, so why not here, in a square ringed with ad hoc commerce? EFF apparel, grilled nyama, cold drinks, sweets, ciggie vendors. “ALL HOPES PINNED ON THE PEOPLE’S CONSTITUTION COURT”, screams a Congress of the People (COPE) press release that pings through on my phone. Not quite. But in Mary Fitzgerald Square, the EFF once again performs an organizational one-armed push up. The busses pour in, the people pour out. “Wait, Fighter,” says a marshal when I compliment him on the turnout. “Just you wait.”

3. The First Speech

EFF marches happen as close to on time as is possible in South Africa, largely because they’re trying to prove how un-ANC they are. So at 11am sharp, the party’s great and mighty assemble on the back of a flatbed work truck, and start shouting into microphones. The crowd? I’d say it’s 7,000 strong, but what do I know? On the back of the truck, the Central Command Team and heads of the provincial structures. It occurs to me that the EFF is using this occasion to mobilise the rank and file in the municipal wards and introduce them to the higher ups—this is as much an education session as it is a march.

Two things at once: the cardinal rule of a great political play.

The joint is buzzing. Oh, but this is one of those days in South Africa: a febrile, jittery, cocaine-hangover, game-of-Russian-roulette-in-the-Vietnamese-jungle-type day. Tectonic plates are shifting; the very mechanisms of constitutional democracy are being stress-tested. How will it play out? Will the Constitutional Court, presided over by Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng—a Zuma appointee, remember—buckle and rule for the Prez? Or will a convoluted pharisaical pissing contest unfold, all to the putative betterment of our young democracy?

It’s clear that in pure political terms, to the EFF it doesn’t matter either way. If the hearing tilts in the opposition’s favour, then Malema is proved a genius. If the court delivers an unfavourable ruling, then that’s a pretty workable outcome for a revolutionary party. Today, the EFF can’t lose—which, at the risk of repeating myself, if the cardinal rule of a great political play.

Malema is fulminating well this morning. He reminds us that all he wants is for the president to comply with the remedial actions recommended by his appointee, Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, as detailed in her Nkandla magnum opus, “Secure in comfort.” He wants the (white-owned) press to correctly attribute this case to his genius, and not to that of the DA—“the correct history will be written in the correct history books,” he promises. He just wants the #PayBackTheMoney issue to splat against the wall of finality. He wants to prove that the head of state is just as accountable to the law as the rest of us are. He wants the Guptas, Jacob Zuma’s main patrons, to leave the country, and he doesn’t want their media houses given recognition as media houses. If Zuma is to pay back the money, he says, where will the money come from?

And then, he promises mayhem in parliament. “You will see what is going to happen on Thursday. The sugar levels are going to be high.”

Hyperglycemia is, I’m told, a bitch.

4. The Big Walk

Strange thing to walk through Johannesburg on a Tuesday. It’s a long train of EFF supporters—they take almost ten minutes from lead vehicle to straggler. They move in waves, and the city is transformed into a political stage. Everybody along the route stands back and watches. The cops form the rear guard; twenty or so cop cars, and a brand new Nyala topped with a water cannon. Cellphones, tablets, cameras: never has Johannesburg, a city devoted to erasure, been so thoroughly recorded.

5. Centre Court

Last week, ex-Democratic Alliance parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko claimed in the Business Day that her former party was governed by a cabal of old white male strategists. If this is the case, they need to be gently put out to pasture before being turned into glue. Where is the DA today?

Nowhere. Or, rather, there is a DA mobile stage, but it’s been hijacked by EFF supporters. “Phanze, Mmusi Maimane, phanze,” yells a Fighter. Not a single DA poobah shows up, which must count as both a blunder and, given the EFF numbers, a very wise idea.

The hill is thick with Fighters. The road is thick with Fighters. Inside Con Court, the case drones on. A small cabal of enthusiasts try to make their way inside the precinct. The cops appear both unimpressed and nervous. The Fighters give up. It’s hot.

Inside, hints of the Talmud and ancient legal precedent stretching back eons. You’ll likely disagree, but humans are wired to argue for justice. Happens everywhere. Under distant acacia trees, deep in collapsed mining pits, on telly—we’re always looking to balance the scales. There’s a deep sense of comfort being so near this court, as it operates at a premium. Despite the weight of the day, this is a party.

In the middle of a mess, one institution remains functional. Sometimes, that’s all it takes.

6. The Hearing

We’ll leave this to the experts. Spoiler alert: to be continued.

7. The Second Speech

The outcome was not, of course, as decisive as Malema and company might have hoped. But they won the day. In fact, I’d argue that they now function as this country’s official opposition, the de facto counterweight to the bad guys fleecing the joint one firepool at a time.

For his second time on a truck-borne stage, Malema was less fiery—the heat and the rain will do that. His legions sang "Mayihlome ihlasele", and then he spoke. He gave a fair summary of the court proceedings, and then he transformed the scene into a hustings. He told his people that if they didn’t register, there was no point to all of this. He told them to vote. He used one of the most important moments in South African constitutional history to stump for wards.

In many years, the Constitutional Court may come back to bite Julius Malema. Although I’d wager that he understands its mechanisms all to well, and when its his chance to appoint its justices, he will do a much better job than his fallen father.

8. Epilogue

What’s to say? It’s over for Zuma. His best bet? Retire with “health issues”. Perhaps Cyril Ramaphosa will soon be your president, while Zuma’s faction will work towards capturing the party in 2017—without suffering the scrutiny that Zuma himself brings. But the party itself is damaged, perhaps beyond repair. One day, and not too far in the future, you will be raising your fist to Julius Sello Malema.

Ah, grow up! It’ll be fine. After all, there’s a Constitutional Court standing in the way of outright collapse. That is, until the next guy figures out how to game the system, and the South African people end up in the dock. DM

Photo: Members of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) gather to march to South Africa's constitutional court in Johannesburg, February 9, 2016. REUTERS/Sydney Seshibedi

  • Richard Poplak
    HEADSHOT_Rich-Poplak_orange.jpg
    Richard Poplak

    Richard Poplak was born and lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. He trained as a filmmaker and fine artist at Montreal’s Concordia University and has produced and directed numerous short films, music videos and commercials. Now a full-time writer, Richard is a senior contributor at South Africa’s leading news site, Daily Maverick, and a frequent contributor to publications all over the world. He is a member of Deca Stories, the international long-form non-fiction collective.

    His first book was the highly acclaimed Ja, No, Man: Growing Up White in Apartheid-Era South Africa (Penguin, 2007); his follow-up was entitled The Sheikh’s Batmobile: In Pursuit of American Pop-Culture in the Muslim World (Soft Skull, 2010). Poplak has also written the experimental journalistic graphic novel Kenk: A Graphic Portrait (Pop Sandbox, 2010). His election coverage from South Africa’s 2014 election, written under the nom de plume Hannibal Elector, was collected as Until Julius Comes: Adventures in the Political Jungle (Tafelberg, 2014).  Ja, No, Man was longlisted for the Alan Paton Non-Fiction prize, shortlisted for the University of Johannesburg Literary Award and voted one of the Top-10 books of 2007 by Now Magazine. Richard has won South Africa’s Media-24 Best Feature Writing Award and a National Magazine Award in Canada.

    Since 2010, Poplak has been travelling across Africa, seeking out the catalysts and characters behind the continent’s 21stcentury metamorphosis. The coming book, co-authored with Kevin Bloom, is called The Shift

  • South Africa

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