There is a grotesque logic to the spectacle of Busisiwe Mkhwebane parachuting back into Parliament as an MP only weeks after the same institution voted to eject her as Public Protector.
This confirms that glaring personal delinquencies such as folly and arrogance, let alone “misconduct and incompetence” (the main charges against her), present no bar to becoming a public representative.
In the National Assembly, outfitted in the EFF regalia of red domestic worker’s uniform and fetching doek, the Honourable Mkhwebane will now doubtless continue to flaunt that contempt for the Constitution which she consistently revealed in her many bizarre judgments as Public Protector.
It also reflects an ugly social threat: those who are deranged (Mkhwebane), exploited by those who thrive on derangement (Julius Malema).
In 2017, Malema regretted having supported her for the job of Public Protector, labelling her a “Gupta puppet” and “a spy”. Now he boasts that this disgraced new MP will bring valuable experience to the party. This may prove grimly true as both thrive on chaos and inconsistency.
But as Mkhwebane famously claimed that she had been selected by God, it may also prove impossible for her to obey a terrestrial Commander-in-Chief.
Meanwhile, the EFF would seem to be the former Public Protector’s spiritual home. Alongside her as EFF luminaries are the other braggadocio M’s: Mzwanele Manyi and Dali Mpofu. Their bombast may charitably be ascribed to the condition of logorrhea – defined by the American Psychological Association as “a communication disorder that causes excessive wordiness which can cause incoherence”.
As Public Protector in 2019, Mkhwebane’s report on Robert McBride was so eccentric that it brought into question not merely her competence, but basic common sense.
As executive director of Ipid tasked with investigating police abuses, McBride and his team were subjected to a smear campaign by the senior corrupt cops they were investigating. Busisiwe Mkhwebane’s vindictive report, based on the grievances of a dismissed and corrupt Ipid officer, reads like a crude hit job.
Mkhwebane’s desire for a predetermined outcome took precedence over actual evidence. Though irrelevant to the issue under investigation, she repeated a ludicrous plot from her discredited informant.
A gathering of conspirators, he alleged, concocted a plot to overthrow the country’s top policeman. This cabal included McBride, the private investigator Paul O’Sullivan, his lawyer Sarah Jane Trent, the informant himself, plus “a white lady called Candice”, and “two white males (representatives of AfriForum and the DA), a white lady (journalist) and one black male who was busy preparing fire for the braai.” AfriForum, Mkhwebane reported without comment, “guaranteed that the funds were available to carry out this mission”.
That comic book farrago comes from a parallel universe, one where the new MP appears unable to distinguish fact from fiction, or even satire.
Perhaps this incoherence will serve her in her new role as a phoney representative of the working class. Not that lack of respect for meaning and truth, or faith in outlandish conspiracies is limited to the EFF. It is an international virus, rampant in the US with Trumpist Republicans, and spreading rapidly to European nations.
In Britain, as their polls plummet, Tory Cabinet ministers increasingly resort to stoking so-called culture wars. It’s not just the ANC or EFF that cynically attack charities, NGOs and even judges and lawyers whose judgments or opinions they don’t like. The current British Home Secretary, to paper over her government’s collapsing policies, smears her critics as “Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati”.
Such is the school-yard level of public discourse in many developed countries in the age of social media.
The late historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote an acclaimed quartet of books, from The Age of Revolution (1789-1848) through to The Age of Extremes (1914-1991). Our current period of Instagram and Elon Musk’s X might come to be known as The Age of Derangement.
Hobsbawm wrote: “Historians are to nationalism what poppy growers in Pakistan are to heroin addicts. We supply the essential raw material for the market.”
Today on platforms like X, millions all over the globe imagine they are instant historians, supplying the raw material for a booming market of false news, angry verdicts, a noxious mix of bigotry and righteous ignorance.
Ironically, our unparalleled connectivity has left millions of individuals feeling more isolated than ever, leading to a lack of trust in traditional institutions and news media.
In an essay in The Atlantic magazine, Hillary Clinton attributes the modern epidemic of conspiracy theories and the rise of demagogues to this atomisation of society. She quotes a report by the US Surgeon-General which records a shocking rise of loneliness in US society.
“It’s not just the surgeon-general who recognises that social isolation saps the lifeblood of democracy,” she wrote. “So do the ultra-right-wing billionaires, propagandists and provocateurs who see authoritarianism as a source of power and profit. There have always been angry young men alienated from mainstream society and susceptible to the appeal of demagogues and hate-mongers.
“But modern technology has taken the danger to another level.”
Even before running Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, Steve Bannon had spotted the potential of what he described as “rootless white males”, socially isolated but active online.
“You can activate that army,” he boasted, and did so successfully with a diet of conspiracy theories and hate speech, swelling the shock troops of the far right.
Here, the counterpart to Steve Bannon is Julius Malema: opportunistic, cunning and malevolent. His authoritarianism and penchant for performative violent spectacles renders political labels of left and right not just flexible, but redundant.
Rather than resentful “rootless white males”, in our uncertain time of derangement, the shock troops for the EFF are recruited from our growing army of rootless, unemployed and predominantly black males.
The EFF is the petulant offspring of the long failure of the ANC.
Thus, following Hobsbawm, Malema is to chauvinism what poppy growers in Pakistan are to heroin addicts. He supplies the essential raw materials for the market – a volatile and deteriorating market that represents the biggest danger for our future. DM