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SA politics: The marbles go missing, again

There are moments when those in our political classes seem to lose their marbles. When they just lose all sight of rationality, when the verbiage that comes out makes no sense: full of emotion, and quite frankly, a little scary. This is one of those times. Somehow just one act of defiance against a Parliamentary rule, and one letter from the head of a Chapter 9 institution, has led to some of the strongest language heard in our country since 1994. It doesn't have to be like this.

Just over a week ago Parliament was a place where peace and calm appeared to rule. Where slumber-inducing debate was the order of the day. The Public Protector was still a (mostly) valued institution, part of a system introduced by the African National Congress (ANC) itself, to act as a check on the power of government.

Fast-forward just six days, and Parliament is a war zone. Armed police line the exits and entrances. The ANC is bussing in supporters to "protect President Jacob Zuma from Julius Malema". Those supporters are chanting "Dubula Malema". In case you've forgotten, that phrase means "Shoot Malema". Meanwhile, the National Assembly Speaker (and ANC Chair) Baleka Mbete is threatening to suspend the entire caucus of one political party from the National Assembly. In one swoop, for a political motive, the voices of a million voters could suddenly be silenced.

At Luthuli House itself, the ruling party's secretary general Gwede Mantashe is claiming that there is "tight coordination" between the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the Public Protector, based on the incredibly flimsy evidence that "some of our MPs even think they saw her" in the Parliamentary precinct just before Malema refused to accept Zuma's non-answer to the question of "pay[ing] back the money". He then claims, with a straight face, that by questioning the Public Protector's motives, by claiming she is dealing with Nkandla as a "personal project" he, and the ANC, "are not attacking the Public Protector".

Through all of this, there is only one beneficiary. It is Malema himself. Never one to shy away from attention, he has succeeded, once again, in framing the question. The argument among the commentariat is now regarding how exactly Malema was able to put so much pressure on Zuma, when so many others have failed over the years.

While this may well drive Mantashe mad (he hit out at commentators on Tuesday, claiming that they were incorrect to almost celebrate Malema's bad behaviour), the fact is that he has himself to blame.

What Malema did last Thursday was, of course, against all the rules of proper conduct. He did exactly what I spend endless hours telling my four-year-old not to do. The reason he has received so much support for what he did is because for so many people, Zuma's actions generally, and regarding Nkandla in particular, have driven them mad with frustration. These are people who want to see the system work; they want government money to be used to make life better for those who really need help.

They are people who feel sick to their stomach that Zuma is living large and in charge in Nkandla (and, curiously, in Russia right now) while in Alexandra, a one-month-old baby has had three of her fingers and part of her nose eaten by rats.

It was Malema himself who pointed out that the ANC felt the need to release no less than three statements about his behaviour within twelve hours of the first hearing of #paybackthemoney. Since then, the party's anger has only grown more intense. Somehow the EFF's action morphed into a "danger to democracy", requiring the full might of the Security Cluster ministers. Really? How, exactly? How is chanting a phrase a danger to all of society? Surely the best thing to do would have been to just issue a statement deploring his conduct, and move on.

Malema, and extremists like him, thrive on the oxygen of publicity. For some reason, Luthuli House has felt the need to keep feeding him the stuff. It is precisely the outrage of the most powerful political organ in our society that makes Malema so powerful.

The same, of course, has occurred with the spat with the Public Protector. The ANC just can't let it rest. On Sunday came two statements on the leaking of her letter to Zuma, telling him he hadn't complied with her Nkandla findings. On Monday night came another. Then, on Tuesday, a press conference with both the secretary general and the deputy secretary general. On Wednesday, @MYANC_ was at it again, demanding to know who leaked the letter, after Madonsela claimed it was a senior ANC leader.

When it comes to issues, the ANC occupies the role in our society that the US president occupies in that society. If the president says something, it becomes the dominant issue. Here, if the ANC issues a statement about something, that is the issue of the day.

There may well be some cogent explanations for this reaction. It probably serves the ANC to be viewed as the centre of the establishment in South Africa, to say that people who voted by and large want their representatives to be able to operate in Parliament properly, and to paint Malema as a force hostile to that. By claiming to be both the organisation that brought democracy out of apartheid, and to be the voice defending democracy from Malema, there may be a certain power to be enjoyed here.

But there are also several risks.

Malema gets built up out of all proportion to the real size of the threat he poses. The office of the Public Protector, and the standing of Madonsela herself, are both surely damaged by the way the ANC has behaved over the last few days.

However, the real danger is that when emotion gets whipped up like this, it makes it harder for anyone to be seen to concede. Even on minor points. Malema now has to keep going, otherwise he looks weak. Madonsela has a similar problem: she has tweeted about "#constitutionalism", and she will look like she's betraying the Constitution if she doesn't continue to fight in the manner she has.

While it's not beyond the bounds of possibility that a political brain as big and experienced as Mantashe is hoping that this kind of pressure will push his opponents into making a mistake, it is still not healthy for the ANC itself, and for the country as a whole.

The overall feeling, surely, is that the ANC has become to Zuma what the South African Communist Party (SACP) has been to Zuma for the last two years. It exists merely to serve him. It seems there is nothing the ANC will not do to protect Zuma, even when he is in the wrong (as he surely must be on Nkandla).

The danger is that when people in authority in our society lose their tempers, they sometimes battle to find them again. And when they do, they may well wish they had behaved differently.

Stephen Grootes is host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 CapeTalk, and the senior political correspondent for Eyewitness News . Follow him on Twitter: @StephenGrootes

This column first appeared on Daily Maverick.

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