Defend Truth


Brawn to be wild — bullying and aggression puts SA’s political blood sport on display


Marianne Thamm has toiled as a journalist / writer / satirist / editor / columnist / author for over 30 years. She has published widely both locally and internationally. It was journalism that chose her and not the other way around. Marianne would have preferred plumbing or upholstering.

The comments during the Big Debate at this year’s Daily Maverick The Gathering made it clear that politics in South Africa is still very much a blood sport. But politics should be a brain sport, a long-term game for the greater good.

It started backstage with the guns. A Glock was spotted. Simple, effective, semiautomatic.

How the weapons got inside the Cape Town International Convention Centre and through the hellish South African Police Service security barriers that smokers were forced to pass through several times a day as if it was Dubai airport, remains a mystery.

The Glock had caught a beam of light that had bounced on to an observant eye. At the time, on the rostrum at the Daily Maverick’s The Gathering, a panel of women was grappling with the meaning of “moral leadership”.

It was late and an audience of about 1,000 had already been drowned by a tsunami of insight and learning, their brains surely close to exploding.

Zukiswa Pikoli, Thuli Madonsela, Janet Jobson and Pregs Govender grappled with the importance of moral leadership in a time of political crisis.

They inserted into the concept of “morality” the no small matter of “love”, with Pikoli setting the scene with a quote from US civil rights hero Martin Luther King Jr.

“Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and [anaemic]. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

Madonsela offered that corruption “is a grave injustice” that robbed people of a level playing field, caused division and diverted resources. All of this went “to the core of democracy by eroding trust”.

The audience hardly had time to soak in their own oxytocin when on to the stage burst the members of the final panel, “The Big Debate”. And talk about eroding trust – it was on steroids.

Speaking of which…

By the time Patriotic Alliance leader Gayton McKenzie plonked his big self on stage his armed bodyguards had been asked to leave.

Read more in Daily Maverick: SA gets a glimpse of a Multi-Party Charter coalition post the May elections and it’s not pretty

McKenzie was followed by Minister of Justice Ronald Lamola, representing the government; the DA’s John Steenhuisen, always in fighting form; the irascible ActionSA founder, Herman Mashaba; and the gentlemanly IFP leader, Velenkosini Hlabisa.

As the men rested themselves in the armchairs the mood changed and there was a certain edginess, accompanied by audible heavy breathing from McKenzie’s head mic. (Gayton, go check your blood pressure.)

The male leaders were all harnessed (and, dare we say, prodded) by Daily Maverick’s Queenin Masuabi and national treasure, broadcaster and Daily Maverick political analyst Stephen Grootes.

Nimble, not lightweight

The debate at first had the air of a nimble boxing match. Not lightweight. Let’s not discuss physical appearances. Hlabisa was a sartorial delight, however – as understated as his politicking.

Some rather good sparring took place between Lamola, Hlabisa and Steenhuisen. Interesting stuff on youth unemployment. All of the politicians ably stood their ground and made valid points.

But very soon Mashaba showed himself to be a man of Thatcherite steeliness and resolve. There are those who believe this to be an attribute, BTW.

political blood sport

From left: Ronald Lamola, Herman Mashaba, Gayton McKenzie, John Steenhuisen and Velenkosini Hlabisa. (Photos: Shelley Christians)

Mashaba says he does not want or need anyone’s friendship. He says he will do away with labour laws and rather wants legislation that “favours big business”.

This from a man who paid academic Prince Mashele R12.5-million to write his book. This writer (though no academic) can tell you, as Grootes informed Mashaba, that this was not a very good business deal. For Mashele it was all bells at the bingo night. For Mashaba, not so much.

To this Mashaba attempted to suggest that if Grootes knew anything about money he would be doing a different job, to which the veteran broadcaster shot back “perhaps we have different values”.

McKenzie was always going to be a screamer. We knew he was going to lower the tone so much that soon even the audience members would be baying and braying and turning on one another.

Out-Thatchering Mashaba, McKenzie called for “a moratorium on unions”, as “no country functions when the unions tell them what to do”. Then he proposed an operation clean-up of “foreigners”.

Read more in Daily Maverick: The Gathering Twenty Twenty-Four

“You are soon going to lose your Zimbabwe and Malawian domestic workers,” he toyed gap-toothed with the audience.

You solve youth unemployment by kicking out foreigners. You get everyone to carry papers at all times to prove their nationality.

“What is wrong with asking for your passport, and if they can’t show their papers…?” McKenzie demanded to know.

“You want people to carry documents for the police to clear?” asked Grootes.

“I don’t care, you do what I tell you to do,” shouted McKenzie like Trump, Thatcher and Putin all rolled into one.

The sound of nothingness

Don’t even get us started on abortion rights, environmental degradation, LGBTQI+ rights.

Why there are not more women in leadership in South Africa is not difficult to understand. It’s like asking why there aren’t more women in the Springbok rugby team.

Politics this time round is still a blood sport. But will this strategy win? Politics should be a brain sport, a long-term game for the greater good where everyone gets to hold up the cup.

Hopefully the brawn the world over will burn itself out without taking us all down.

Suffice it to say the Martin Luther King Jr quote went over some heads. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.


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  • Anthony Kearley says:

    The uncomfortable thought that comes to my mind, is that these politicians whom you described are only there because they’re popular… they represent the voters’ choices… which suggests that if the worst of them fell out of the political arena, they’d likely be replaced by their equivalent… the road to collectivist populism is broad, the path to constitional democracy is narrow.

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    For one who could attend the event in person, thanks for a glimpse into the kind of personalities that took to the stage. The overall domination of testosterone is not surprising. It is that which attracts many people as a kind of ‘sport’ .. even at electorate level. I am reminded of my activist days when I attended many ‘civic’ gatherings with several ‘speakers’. Most were from the school of ‘rev them up’ while the intelligent profferings of people like Dulla Omar were usually sidelined in a manner of speaking. Welcome to the world and age of ‘entertainment’. Many insider comments display the same kind of what Beinart describes as hubris … many hiding behind pseudonyms . A hangover from out apartheid past ?

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