Last week was a phenomenal week for me. I went from seeing Pope Francis at Saint Peter’s Square at Vatican City for his weekly Papal general audience, on Wednesday, to seeing Julius Malema, Floyd Shivambu, Mmusi Maimane, Herman Mashaba and Parks Tau court people for their votes at The Gathering 2016 on Friday.
Daily Maverick’s annual Gathering is always an exceptional event and this year’s impressed as always. With Zweli Mkhize as the opening act, sprinklings of John Vlismas, Sisonke Msimang, Robert McBride and Minister of Finance, Pravin Gordhan, as the closing act, what more could you ask for?
Maimane seems to have matured politically in the past year since his last performance at The Gathering, whereas his mayoral candidate for Johannesburg may have lost votes for the DA in Johannesburg with a shaky performance that was Trumpesque, “I am a big success despite starting out poor”, with nothing else to offer. Parks Tau proved to be a seasoned politician; by most accounts he was the winner of the mayoral debate – despite his knack for building bicycle lanes – while Shivambu came in a close second.
However, the superstar of the day was the Commander-in-Chief of the red beret-wearing Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). Julius Sello Malema, in his charismatic, bellowing voice, pointed out that very little has changed in the 22 years of democracy to equalise the economic opportunity/freedom of black people. The bicycle lanes Johannesburg boasts, bicycle lanes that enable Johannesburg to compete with some of the most cosmopolitan and developed cities in the world, have done very little, if anything at all, to address fundamental issues caused by apartheid town planning. Instead he argued that these bicycle lanes are no more than a piecemeal offering to the middle class as a reward for them “paying most of the tax and rates bill”. How does any society justify bicycle lanes, when people do not have flushing toilets, he argued.
He made a hell of a lot of sense on many of the issues his speech addressed, explaining why Afrikaans still remains a language of privilege when used as a medium of instruction at institutions of higher learning, whereas everyone else has to be lectured in their second, third – if not 11th – language at university. Sensible stuff until we get to the subtext of violence.
During his three-way question-and-answer session with Ranjeni Munusamy and Richard Poplak from Daily Maverick, the issue of violence reared its head. Ranjeni lit the tinderbox when she asked Malema whether his words of “crushing white dominance” was not open to an interpretation by his supporters, lending itself to inflaming the current racial tensions in South Africa? He dismissed her question as somehow undermining black people’s intelligence, at least that of his black supporters. He further went on to justify the use of violence, always layering it with a thin veil of self-defence: “When you say you will take a gun in defence of your revolution, some fool (in reference to Maimane, who spoke before him) stands here saying you were spreading violence… I’m not going to start any violence, EFF is not a violent organisation… There’s no violence that can be attributed to EFF.”
However, the self-defence argument soon turned into the – disallowed in law – provocation defence: “We have no cheek to offer, we are going to fight. They steal the elections, we will meet them on the streets. If you use violence against us, we will take up arms in defence of our revolution.”
So, what is the big deal, we have had free and fair elections thus far and Malema’s threat is only of concern if and when elections are rigged, right? Well wrong! Many a despot anywhere in the world that has ascended to power following a military coup d’état or civil war has used the “votes have been rigged” argument. With recent Independent Electoral Commission’s (IEC) shenanigans due to insufficient registered voter information highlighted by the Tlokwe case, Julius has an easy case to point to of suspected “vote rigging” even under the watch – if not with the complicity – of the IEC. In fact during his Q-and-A with Munusamy and Poplak, he claimed that the EFF believes that the votes were rigged in Alexandra and that they let it slide then and they will not repeat the same mistake.
Violent rhetoric is dangerous, especially by those with significant power, and if Poplak’s sources are correct, Malema certainly has significant power at a projection of 12% of the popular vote. But apart from the clichéd “we need peace for the sake of peace” argument, especially by the antagonists suspected of wanting to rig votes, there simply is no need to “protect the revolution with the barrel of a gun”. The EFF and the Democratic Alliance, along with everyone else who has an axe to grind with President Jacob Zuma and his government, have proven one irrefutable fact: that independent institutions protect our democracy against those who place it at peril.
The IEC itself might have to deal with the mess of having to postpone the local government election due to its record-keeping bungling and that matter is sitting in the electoral court and may escalate to other superior courts. The Constitutional Court ordered Treasury to determine how much President Jacob Zuma has to pay back for his infamous renovations project at Nkandla. Further to that, the National Prosecuting Authority has been left with the uncomfortable job of having to appeal the reinstatement of 783 criminal charges against President Jacob Zuma, an appeal most legal experts say will fail horribly.
So with South African society petitioning to have Mogoeng Mogoeng and Thuli Madonsela canonised before their passing, there is no doubt that this Constitution and democracy has the mechanisms in place to protect itself peacefully with no need for the violence that has destroyed so many nations, some of them our closest neighbours.
The difficulty with the peaceful, constitutional approach is that it needs patience and does not provide the immediate gratification of tens of thousands of lives lost, a ruined economy and excuses by those that took power through the barrel of a gun that the world does not want to trade with us because we stood up against the West or some other political red herring of a similar nature.
Munusamy was not being insulting or undermining with her question, it was valid as the South African context lends itself to a generation of angry young people who believe that the system that has failed them is insurmountable to beat. Without decent education, poverty-stricken despite democracy’s promises, unemployed and generally pissed off, the idea of going through lengthy court processes when the EFF loses in a ward its members expected to win, may be less appealing than taking to the barrel of the gun.
Bicycle lanes as opposed to flushing toilets, or electricity connections to poor communities, make as much sense as Penny Sparrow’s apology. Looking at how the policy of the EFF highlights the plight of the poor is essential, and if the voter is swayed that Venezuela and China are indeed examples of global best practice for governance, human rights and fair labour practice, as proposed by the EFF, so be it. What we need to pay close attention to however is the persistent, ever-present violent subtext. It is brushed off as misunderstood, guised in the context of protecting the Constitution and revolution, but it is damned dangerous and not needed.
The ANC, when it resorted to violence, violence it needs to account for today, did so as it had no legal or constitutional legitimacy to negotiate with the National Party up until 1994. Julius and anyone else cannot claim that today, no matter how bad Number One or his government is. It is emotive, it gets young disgruntled people riled up and cheap politicking that could lead to actual blood being spilt. DM
Gushwell F. Brooks is an LLB graduate from the University of the Witwatersrand. He did not go on to become an attorney, but much rather entered the corporate rat race. After slaving away for years, he found his new life as a talk show host for Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk.