[OPINION] The politics of spectacle

South Africa is yet again being fed the politics of spectacle.

Last week Jacob Zuma went from former president to Accused Number 1 in a criminal trial. Zuma faces 16 charges of fraud, corruption and money laundering between 1995-2005.

In a shameful replay of Zuma’s 2006 rape trial, his supporters gathered in night vigils ahead of his appearance the next morning. As if on cue, Zuma arrived at court ready yet again to play the role of the persecuted one. He was on familiar territory in his home base of KwaZulu-Natal where the staunch believers will forgive him anything, it seems. He has also traversed this territory of trying to stave off prosecution before.

And so, was it any surprise that Zuma told the crowd that the State was pursuing him for political motives given the length of time it had taken to bring him before a court? Needless to say, Zuma did not tell the faithful that he has done everything possible to avoid his day in court for the past 13 years. The South African public continues to pay for his fanciful legal pursuits. Predictably, Zuma ended his speech to the crowd with a rousing rendition of Umshini wam but not before asking yet again, what he has done?

Unfortunately for Zuma, however, while this spectacle made for titillating television, the political ground has shifted. This time there was no Julius Malema threatening to ‘Kill for Zuma!’ and no Zwelinzima Vavi equally threatening an ‘unstoppable tsunami’. Instead, behind Zuma stood a veritable basket of deplorables - Carl Niehaus, the MKVA spokesperson who is so discredited through his own lies, that he seems only to able to defend the indefensible. Behind Niehaus stood former SABC COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng, who brought the public broadcaster to its knees through his dictatorial leadership style, corruption and maladministration. And then the ubiquitous Black Land First, represented by Andile Mngxitama, whom Malema accuses of being in the thrall of the Guptas. What a trio.

In the wings was former Communications Minister Faith Muthambi from whom we never received any complete answers regarding the hundreds of thousands spent on flying family and friends to her Budget speech last year, or regarding her hiring Motsoeneng’s 21-year-old daughter. It was Muthambi who famously said of Motsoeneng, ‘UBaba loves him’.

And so, as always Zuma was being consistent. Like the emperors in Ancient Rome, he fed the crowd the ‘bread and games’ of the circus that was his ascent to power and which continued as he begrudgingly left office and now at his trial. In doing so, he surrounded himself with the feckless, the corrupt and the unprincipled. Last week’s scenes in Durban were just more of the same. Zuma and his supporters have never let the facts get in the way of the emotion of the circus.

The facts are that Zuma left an economy in ruin, a higher rate of unemployment than when he took office, and deepening inequality. His legacy is a society straining at the seams due to a lack of social cohesion, given his failure to lead with any form of care for the most vulnerable and marginalised. Even his announcement of free higher education was met with cynicism given the lack of consultation and his failure to even consider the findings of the Heher Commission he himself had appointed.

Our democratic institutions have borne the burden of his constant attacks on the credibility of the courts (even as he used them to delay his day in court), judges and the Public Protector, to name but a few.

According to a World Bank report released last week, South Africa is the most unequal country in the world. It listed 149 countries and covers the period 2006 to 2015. Apartheid’s stubborn legacy endures. The headline-grabbing facts were that the top 1% of South Africans own 70.9% of the country’s wealth and that more than half of South Africans - or a staggering 30 million people - live below the national poverty line of R992 per month. This number has increased since 2011, the report says. Those worst affected by poverty are black South Africans, perhaps sadly and predictably so. Poverty also has a strong spatial dimension with much poverty in former homelands. Not all of this is Zuma’s doing, but his Presidency exacerbated many of these appalling statistics.

But the politics of spectacle is not limited to Zuma.

Malema, a master manipulator of the soundbite and the media, has equally played to the gallery in the past weeks. For Malema, like any populist, easy solutions to complex challenges are bandied about in what is usually an unfettered stream of consciousness. He is both dangerous and demagogic especially as regards his reckless comments on land. Land has become Malema’s proxy. We saw this in the EFF’s anti-democratic behaviour in Nelson Mandela Bay when it tried to remove Athol Trollip on the most unprincipled basis and then used race baiting to create further division within the council. Malema declared that the EFF was ‘cutting the throat of whiteness’. Figurative perhaps, but no politician should be using such racial incitement given our fractured past. The crucial point, however, is that despite the rhetoric, the EFF was unable to remove Trollip. Doubtless it will try again to keep up the emotive spectacle.

On Friday Malema appeared in the Mangaung court ahead of his trial regarding his comments on land grabs. Outside the court, so-called ‘fighters’ gathered in support of Malema who did not disappoint them. There he said, “We are here not because we raped‚ killed or stole anything. But because we recited the Freedom Charter that people will have the right to occupy land wherever they choose. Land is dignity‚ land is houses‚ land is employment… you are here in numbers cause you are unemployed. But if you had the land you would be at home working your land.”

Would that it were that simple that land would provide the necessary security for the unemployed. Unfortunately, it is not. The investment in skills development and training needs to be done systematically and a truthful rendering of the state’s botched and corrupt land redistribution and reform programme since 1994 must be made. So, a rational conversation about the ‘original sin’ of dispossession, the failure of the post-apartheid state to deal with land and fresh ways of approaching the land issue, must be had. It is what President Cyril Ramaphosa has been calling for, but the Malema politics of spectacle has overtaken Ramaphosa’s narrative of a calm dialogue informed by facts.

Malema and Zuma are politicians cut from the same cloth – opportunistic and self-serving. Despite Zuma’s pronouncements of victimhood on the steps of the court, one senses he will have trouble retaining the support as the trial proceeds over what will be years. As for Malema, the concern amongst many is that the ANC will be tempted to match his unthinking populism, especially as regards land given the various factional interests at play within the ANC. It would be very foolish to do so and would undermine the serious efforts being made to restore the economy and bring about growth that is truly inclusive. After all, the politics of spectacle should quite simply be seen for what it is - dishonest and distracting.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february