In the latest installment of an occasional series, RICHARD POPLAK considers the implications of the EFF saying ‘Thanks, but no thanks’, surrendering their electoral representation in the National Assembly, and going rogue.
Night Slasher: You want to go to Hell? Huh, Pig? You want to go to Hell with me? It doesn’t matter, does it? We are the hunters. We kill the weak so the strong survive. You can’t stop the New World. Your filthy society will never get rid of people like us. It’s breeding them! WE ARE THE FUTURE!
Martin “Cobra” Cobretti: No! [Aims gun]. You’re HISTORY. [Fires.]
Sylvester Stallone’s Cobra (1986)
Nowhere in the Hollywood cosmology do we find a better picture of contemporary South African life than we do in 1980s cop thrillers. I don’t mean in the depiction of out-of-control crime rates, because New York during the Reagan era was more violent and depraved than South Africa has ever hoped to be. And I don’t mean the fact that cop protagonists shot people in the face for transgressions ranging from being black to mass murder, an epidemic of twitchy fingers they share with most members of the SAPS. (And, it would appear, with their real-life, modern day counterparts in Missouri, Florida, etc.) No, I’m referring to the physics of those films, where rogue policemen—who ignored due process, Miranda rights and other limp-wristed government attempts to deliver justice—inhabited the top of an inverted moral pyramid.
The likes of Sylvester Stallone’s Cobra, a derivation of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, took the law into his own hands because the law wasn’t lawful. It protected the rights of scumbag serial killers while leaving innocent citizens swinging from meat hooks. In order to combat justice’s injustice, American pop culture’s practitioners created the fascist cop in a leather jump suit who mumbled catch phrases and spoke more eloquently with an Uzi than he did with his mouth.
As the United States descends into utter mayhem, there’s been a resurgence of interest in these films, and I can’t help but see the corollaries. South Africa is, of course, now at the stage where our institutions are retrofitted to protect thievery rather than to prosecute it. We’re not that different from America, and we shouldn’t be confused as to why—this country and its rulers are completely beholden to corporate interests. Our deputy president cleans mining companies for a living. Our president once shared zippy code words with a French arms firm, which kept him on retainer like a houseboy. Our judicial and legislative branches don’t serve citizens, but Masters, and those Masters serve money, and that money makes the world go round.
And so with Julius Malema in court today, facing charges of fraud, corruption, money-laundering and racketeering—all of which allegedly netted him a cool R4 million—we are once again forced to consider what the term “law” actually means, especially in its selective application. Why, wonder Malema’s supporters, does our guy stand before a judge, while the other guy continues to smirk his way through a succession of scandals? If x is bad for doing n, then shouldn’t y be bad for doing n?
The algebra, like the law, appears to be broken.
Watch: Cobra trailer
Night Slasher: The court is civilized, isn’t it Pig?
Martin “Cobra” Cobretti: Yeah, but I’m not, sucker!
It’s tough to read history while it’s being written, but I think it’s safe to say that we’re at the part where good guys do good by being bad, while the bad guys are bad for being holier than thou. The only way to be civil is to be uncivil, to take the law into your own hands, to go rogue. There’s the issue with Malema’s current court appearance. And there’s the problem of Parliament. The fifth session has been dominated by two intersecting stories: a) the committed and united opposition catalyzed by the arrival of Malema and his red shirts, and b) the Nkandla scandal. This single symbolic issue has kept President’s Zuma’s back to one of his innumerable walls. It all circles around the Public Protector report that recommends he pay back a portion of the public money from which he unduly profited whilst transforming his homestead to a Gaddafi palace. But the Public Protector hands her reports to the president. When he is the subject of one of those reports, he tends to interpret her findings like he’s reading Joyce’s Ulysses on research-grade LSD.
The Nkandla report is only ammunition if it’s fired through the high caliber semi-automatic machinegun of constant public pressure. The ANC have tried to neutralise the document by running it through a toothless ad hoc committee. The opposition insists that the Public Protector’s recommendations are mandatory, but the ad hoc committee, dominated by the ANC, will never come to that conclusion. They hope to turn the ammunition into celebratory confetti, and just another instance of President Zuma sidestepping the inconvenience of accountability.
There is only one law in town, they are reminding us. Power’s law.
CiC Malema has suggested that the EFF may be forced to go all Cobra and leave the manifold pleasures of Parliament behind—including drivers, hefty salaries, and commercial flights into perpetuity. Would they ditch the red overalls and berets for mirrored sunglasses, leather vests and Gats with laser sighting? I do not know. What I do know is that this would be unprecedented in South Africa’s admittedly young democracy, and something that would throw the country into an accelerated period of transformation. There are people, some of them within the EFF, who describe this sort of thing as a “revolution”.
But this would be a very special type of revolution. It would speak to public discontent, certainly, but it would not be driven by the public. It would not be spontaneous, it would be designed. It would not be earned, it would be bought on credit. The EFF has a constituency, but the party cannot claim to speak for the so-called common man, or any Marxist derivation thereof, and that’s because they don’t. They’re a young party that won 25 seats in the National Assembly following a game they chose to play. The ANC owns Parliament, the ad hoc committee on Nkandla and everything else in this country because they won 62 percent of the vote in an election that was free and fair, if desultory and depressing. They will not win 62 percent next time, and they will be gasping for every vote before the decade is out.
If the EFF and their new besties in the National Assembly wait out the fifth session, fight every battle presented to them on a canapé tray by the ruling party, and dutifully fulfill the requirements asked of them by constitutional decree, they will almost certainly make major gains in the municipal elections in 2016, and the national elections in 2019. As a consolation prize, they might even find that they bury Zuma in his own filth along the way. If you want slow change, goes the saying, ask a democracy. If you something done double-quick, there are other methods.
Most of those methods are extra-legal, which does not make them wrong per se—a democracy as beholden to capital as our own deserves a reckoning. But it does make them very, very dangerous.
Martin “Cobra” Cobretti: As long as we play by these bullshit rules and the killer doesn’t, we’re gonna lose!
So let’s just say the EFF are in a rush. In that case, their only choice is to go rogue, to walk away from Parliament, and to (knowingly) invalidate the South African iteration of democracy. But then they must ask a question: who do we become? American filmmakers, sickened by weak-kneed namby-pamby Big Government pussies, gave their audiences cops who shot first, asked questions later, and acted like fascists. Fifteen years later, they were blessed with George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and cops who shot first, asked questions later, and acted like fascists. In other words, when society daydreams alternatives, those fantasies shouldn’t be confused with solutions.
The EFF has caused such a racket that, like the Israelites blowing trumpets at Jericho, they are on the brink of bringing the walls down. Should they go Cobra and make for the wilderness, the South Africans who are asked to follow them will be forced to confront a question of their own: who do I become? A genuine agent of change, a revolutionary in the old-school application of the term? Or a matchstick-chewing fake cop spitting sassy one-liners while ketchup sachets spewing real blood explode by the thousands?
The limitations of democracy dictate that only the ANC can pretend that they speak for the majority of South Africans, even if they serve only their own narrow patronage network. In order to change that, the opposition either waits the system out. Or they break it.
The danger with the former is death by boredom, by way of penury. The danger with the latter is that, like Martin “Cobra” Cobretti, they become something worse than that they despise. DM
Photo of Julius Malema by Thapelo Legkowa.
**Richard Poplak is the author of “Until Julius Comes” – a complete, irreverent take on the 2014 SA National Elections.