Last week, the EFF’s Commander-in-Chief visited a Cape Town country club and stole the hearts of people who own horses worth the GDP of Rwanda. RICHARD POPLAK goes looking for the Fear among the canapés.
What if I told you that at the very bottom of Africa—where long ago sailors alighted three ships belonging to a Dutch corporation, planted organic vegetable gardens and shot all the locals—nothing much had changed in four centuries? What if I pointed out that the organic gardens remain largely intact, even if they now belong to folks riding fixed-gear bicycles? And that anyone darker than a Swedish surfer is still hounded out of town, if not by bullets, than certainly by R40 flat whites?
What if I told you that there are flights leaving South Africa for this utopia approximately 20 times a day, most costing less half a night’s stay at the Mount Nelson?
Nothing—not the war against Apartheid, not “democracy”, not the loss of J.M. Coetzee to Adelaide, Australia—has shaken Cape Town out of its indomitable seventeenth-century torpor, and there really is nowhere else on earth that so efficiently and unashamedly shills the colonial experience. I don’t mean the hoary tchotchkes and neo-serfs in livery à la Sandton’s Balalaika Hotel. I mean a place that literally feels like it was colonised yesterday. If Jan van Riebeeck were photographed washing fish tacos down with an IPA at a new boite on Bree Street, I would not be in the least bit surprised.
Simultaneously self-aware and completely unconscious, Cape Town is now suffering the first febrile jitters of the democratic era. The arrival of the men in red overalls and the women in like-coloured maids’ uniforms has not exactly flattened the mountain, but they have changed the conversation: the new clobber signals a new age, the opening of a leftist theatre of the absurd that is actually attracting an audience.
Here’s how the impossible happened: in their rush to stream the contents of the treasury directly into their personal bank accounts, the ANC leadership decided to leave the Cape’s Brahmin to their pink gin and tonics and minor infidelities. Whether it’s the Stellenbosch Broederbond or the horsey set with their insurance company euros, Cape Town’s elite found themselves in the paradoxical position of being filthy rich and completely disenfranchised. These beautiful people were united by a love of sea air, a reluctant (and conditional) acceptance of the Zille regime, hatred of the African National Congress, and the fact that nothing they say counts for shit any longer.
That, and perhaps their new political party of choice: Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters.
That last bit is a stretch, I know. But since the Fighters boxed their way into Parliament in May of this year, and since the Commander-in-Chief has so effectively and repeatedly sent Zuma blubbering to the mat over the course of a short, happy tenure in the Big House, the enemy’s enemy has become a tenuous friend. Last week in these pages, Marianne Thamm reported on Malema’s foray into one of Cape Town’s most refined old money enclaves, the Kelvin Grove Club in Newlands. As he was the first black man wearing overalls to get served in that esteemed multi-purpose rich persons’ playpen, the day was rather a historic one.
First, some questions: why in heck was Malema there? Surely this was a constituency that wasn’t worth the petrol money, even if the official reason was addressing the members of Cape Town Press Club? How on earth did he expect the grandmothers of people named Lex and Mary-Beth to swallow the Marxist line? Why did the busiest man in South Africa suddenly decide to swing through Newlands for a Coke and a chat, when every second in his calendar must be dedicated to acquiring votes and fundrai….Whoa! Wait a second!
He can’t be bloody serious, can he?
He can! He can be bloody serious! And he’s obviously deadly bloody serious about syphoning off money from Kelvin Grove’s high-end power couples, firstly because they have the money to blow, and secondly, because there’s a legitimate political argument to be made for throwing in behind a left wing party in its nascency. Why give Malema cash or a Mercedes Benz or a racing pony named Forthwith or Humble Pie? “Democracy means the right to defend your right to disagree with me, so you would be supporting democracy,” he told the toffs.
Malema, with his 20/20 political vision, knows that there is an ideological crisis in South Africa, which is to say that neither the DA nor the ANC actually stand for anything. By staking out an actual position, albeit on the left, Malema can pretend to his would-be supporters that there is a real conversation to engage in. What if these terrified members of the toffocracy, who fear nothing more than the swart gevaar the Apartheid idiots promised them 25 years ago, were able to own a piece of the revolution, like the chunks of Robben Island’s fence now sold as art. He’s offering them the ridiculously improbable ability of picking up the phone, calling the CiC, and saying, “Now now, Julius. What’s this I hear about a gallows at the Waterfront?”
Malema understands that the good people at Kelvin Grove are as voiceless as are unemployed miners in Rustenberg, and that the one thing humans value more than anything is being heard. The ANC created a vacuum, so the narrative goes, and the EFF arrived to fill it. But this natural act must at some point be moderated and governed and supported and financed or it will turn into a hurricane of blood. And that’s where the white hyper-elite comes in: become part of the project, or become the headless extras in its denouement. This is politics in South Africa—no matter how tasty the hors d’ouvres, one doesn’t have to look particularly far to find the Fear.
The most superb element of Malema’s Kelvin Grove smackdown, as is almost always the case with this supremely gifted politician, was his ability to work the relevant iconography. He invoked the memory of Helen Suzman, the Great White Anti-Apartheid Stalwart. “The ANC has no regard for this parliament,” Malema told the gaga gogos. “To them it is nothing. It is a place to milk money. Not even Apartheid politicians undermined Parliament this way. Helen Suzman used Parliament to unearth the truth from Apartheid ministers because they could not lie under oath or undermine Parliament.”
But what, one wonders, would Suzman have made of Malema? What would she have thought when the EFF began drumming on their hard-hats and demanding their/our/your money back? For one thing, I doubt she would have agreed with the statement that “not even Apartheid politicians undermined Parliament in this way”, for they were indeed a lousy bunch of murderers, fraudsters and hacks. And I think she might have marvelled at the safety under which the EFF were able to prosecute their disruptive campaign. She would certainly have noted that the Fear the EFF engenders, packages and sells, however tacit, and would hopefully have pointed out how much less real it was than the Fear on offer courtesy of the old regime. This newer, faker Fear is a commercial product and a political play: buy EFF, buy peace of mind, and go back to playing tennis. And if the new regime play into the new Fear by summoning the security cluster and acting like the old regime, the EFF become the new regime before they were the new regime.
And nothing is sexier to rich folk with nothing to do than a revolutionary on the run.
For the people who really count in this whole process—the unemployed miners in Rustenberg who truly do need a political alternative—the EFF’s rise remains a major political event. For those who have ceased to count because their money silences them, the EFF will serve to clear the cobwebs from an opposition that has become far too comfortable using its lawyers to make its arguments. Meanwhile, Malema will continue to charm Whites out of their tennis whites. After all, “Marx was white,” Malema reminded his audience, with a wink. But so were sailors who planted those early organic gardens. Whites, you see, are people too! South Africa’s reckoning, in Malema’s conception, will not be racial, but classist.
He’s probably correct about that—the revolutionary buckets will be full of heads of all hues. Malema is offering the good folks at Kelvin Grove the opportunity to underwrite their own demise. If I were them, I’d do the right thing and take it. DM
Photo: The leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), Julius Malema, attends the party’s election manifesto launch in, Johannesburg, South Africa, 22 February 2014. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK