On Thursday, parliament was a playpen. Like monstrous, bald newborns in their red onesies, Fighters Floyd Shivambu and Julius Malema thrashed about in the throes of a political colic, spluttering rage at an ambivalent Father. He sat there and eyed the inevitable results of his seed with an expression that approached distaste, knowing that somewhere in the dimness of the past he should have taken a harsher hand or, alternatively, dipped their pacifiers in something sweet and soothing. For his oversized infants were growing up to be not merely querulous, but downright dangerous. Like all baby boys, they were propelled by instinct toward all that belonged to the Father, who watched wearily as his little Oedipusses snatched at the strands of his narrative, and wrapped them around his neck like a noose. This wasn’t a parliamentary session. It was patricide, regicide.
“Pay back the money!” they chanted, disrupting the ancient rites of British parliamentary decorum that have protected Power in these realms for a century or so.
At issue, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, is the R246 million security upgrade undertaken at the Presidential homestead, a portion of which Public Protector Thuli Madonsela has determined Zuma owes the beleaguered taxpayers of this country. But for Zuma and the ANC, who rule by erasure, paying back the money would be to acknowledge that something that doesn’t exist exists. Any discussion must be shut down, until Nkandla enters the stream of the South African unconscious as a term without meaning, never uttered.
And so, with a wagging, school-marmish finger, National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbeta insisted that the Fighters cease their braying. “I will throw you out of the house if you don’t listen,” she stated. But this isn’t your grandpappy’s parliament: this is South Africa during the nightmare year of 2014, in which airplanes are shot from the sky by bearded Russian savages; journos are beheaded by gangster-capitalists posing as Islamic fascists; and the American president golfs while underwriting a full-scale renovation of Gaza. Preternaturally attuned to the fear and terror of the times, Julius Malema stood up in parliament and initiated the following piece of grand political theatre:
An otherwise ordinary session of parliament, except for the fact that 25 or so honorable members dressed for a South African version of Downton Abbey’s below house.
Juju [addressing President Zuma]: When are you paying the money for Nkandla back?
Juju: When are you paying the money because the public protector has instructed you to pay the money? We want a date.
Random ANC MP: Point of order!
Juju [visibly angry]: This thing of point of order is what you hide behind, because every time a report is brought you say point of order!
Some mayhem in the galleries.
Zuma: All the reports on the security upgrades at my private residence was submitted to the speaker on Thursday last week. I hope we are not going to make a debate on this issue. I’ve responded appropriately.
Hard hats are used as battle drums. All hell breaks loose.
Exit stage (very far) left.
We know this game. According to the reverse logic employed by the ANC, the “Nkandla issue” is not an issue because there is no “Nkandla issue”—it has been addressed by not being addressed, and in its non-addressing has ceased to be the issue it never was. But Julius Malema understands how to unravel this sophistry, because—as we’ve already noted—he was spawned by the ANC. And so he has reversed the ANC’s reversal by jamming their rhetoric into a Hadron Collider of his own making, smashing the atoms of their silence into the neurons of his noise, revealing a new political physics.
What did Speaker Mbete do? She suspended parliament and called in the storm troopers. Outside the hallowed halls of parliament, men with guns waited, in case anyone dressed as a maid detonated a suicide vest. Mmusi Maimane, the DA’s Parliamentary leader and squarest dude on the block, noted that, “During Parliament today, the Speaker failed by not insisting that the President answer the question which the EFF rightfully put to him in terms of the rules. The Speaker acted with haste and unduly summoned the Sergeant at Arms to expel the EFF from proceedings in the House and ultimately called in the heavily armed riot police.” But he also wanted us to know that, “Members of the EFF failed, equally, by not respecting the proceedings of the House and removed Parliament’s opportunity to hold the President to account.”
Oh, but I think he’s mistaken. It’s not merely that the EFF doesn’t respect the rules of parliamentary decorum—it’s that they understand that those rules are used to subvert any meaningful interrogation of power. We should not forget that while the ANC won a resounding majority at the polls, they did not receive a mandate. They won not on points of policy, but because for South African voters of a certain age, they remain both the body and the soul of this country. Those voters, however, will soon die, and what comes next is something less complacent, something angrier. Julius Malema knows this. He knows that his base isn’t interested toffish points of order imported from over the seas.
He knows that they want mayhem.
And mayhem they got: the session was suspended, the riot cops called in, the “stakeholders” consulted. And the ANC did what they do best—they erased. In their outraged press statement, the term “Nkandla” was not mentioned once. Instead, we were informed that this was all a conspiracy—a deliberate and pre-planned attempt to blow up the Big House. (On this, they probably have a case.) “The EFF MPs… used their leader’s turn to pose a question to the President as an opportunity to cause chaos and disruption,” they moaned. But what question? And why? It doesn’t matter, because this was “not a political challenge to the ANC, but a clear attack on legitimate democratic institutions with an aim of undermining the democratic values upon which our country is founded.”
And then this gem: “We thank the President for honouring his obligation and appearing in Parliament to account to the people of South Africa through his response to parliamentary questions. We also commend him for demonstrating laudable statesmanship even under extreme provocation.” Of course, “laudable statesmanship” in the ANC context is to remove words from the lexicon simply by never using them. “Such reprehensible behaviour might be hailed in certain quarters as radicalism,” they reminded us of the EFFs antics, but “[a]narchism can never be a substitute for vibrant and superior ideas.”
Unfortunately, we have left the Age of Ideas long behind us. This is the Age of Rage. And as he watched the mewling babies that are his legitimate progeny tear the family home to pieces, I think that Zuma got a sense of what is coming for him. There is no hiding behind points of order any longer; the “democratic institutions” are no longer bunkers behind which he and his cronies can cower. The EFF may be vessels of populist outrage, they may be ersatz radicals in play-play costumes, they may be big babies screaming for a nipple. But this is what happens when you rule by erasure: you create a vacuum so large that something arrives to fill it.
So, Oedipus comes for daddy’s head. And when the chaos is over, we all exit stage (very far) left. DM
** Richard Poplak is the author of “Until Julius Comes” a complete, irreverant collection of essays of the 2014 SA Elections.
Photo: Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema is seen leaving Parliament in Cape Town on Thursday, 21 August 2014 with EFF MPs. Members of the EFF earlier stood their ground and refused to leave Parliament after being ordered to do so.An hour after being ordered to leave the House, EFF MPs were still sitting in their benches chanting and singing. Malema was not happy with President Jacob Zuma’s reply to a question about when he was going to “pay back” part of the money spent on the R246m security upgrades to his private Nkandla homestead in KwaZulu-Natal. Picture: Nardus Engelbrecht/SAPA.
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