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[OPINION] Zuma and Malema's politics of spectacle

When former President Jacob Zuma appeared in court in April, the politics of spectacle was on full display. 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 and 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 would forgive him anything, it seems.

Predictably, Zuma ended his speech to the crowd with a rousing rendition of Mshini wam but not before asking yet again, what he has done? This time though 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 able to defend the indefensible; behind Niehaus stood former SABC COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng, who brought the SABC to its knees through his dictatorial leadership style, corruption and maladministration; and then the ubiquitous Black Land First.

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.

EFF leader Julius Malema is a worthy successor to take up Zuma’s mantle. Malema has had no need yet to perfect the art of victimhood but he has perfected the art of spectacle, insult and distraction.

The Zondo Commission of Inquiry into state capture is providing the backdrop to much of the political drama playing out on our screens. Each day we are confronted with fresh revelations of those who looted the state. It is a surprise that there was any money left once Zuma left office. But our public money seems to be the gift that keeps on giving to those involved in corrupt dealings within the state.

Malema, a master manipulator of the sound bite 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.

Over the past few weeks he and his EFF colleagues have gone on a full-scale attack against Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan. It has resulted in Gordhan laying charges against Malema and his EFF deputy Floyd Shivambu. In turn, Malema and the EFF laid some absurd charges against Gordhan, which include fraud and racketeering. Media reports which have included a fact check show that charges appear to be bluster possibly aimed at distracting us all from the EFF and its own alleged misdoings.

What has been most disturbing, however, is the name-calling Malema has been involved in - not for the first time. How is it deemed acceptable in a democratic society for Malema to call his political rivals ‘dogs’?

But Malema has always seen himself as above the law and above reason and acceptable conduct. Outside the Zondo commission a band of EFF supporters together with the discredited Black Land First continued ‘protesting’ against Gordhan and ‘white monopoly capital’. What exactly do they mean when their snouts are quite firmly in the capitalist trough?

And what objection could they possibly have to Gordhan who is trying to clean up corruption in state-owned enterprises and who was hounded out of office by Zuma? At that time, of course, the EFF supported Gordhan wholeheartedly.

But this is the same Malema whose EFF continues a spirited support for the discredited and allegedly corrupt former Sars commissioner Tom Moyane. We should be asking ourselves only one question, ‘why the duplicity?’ There has been much reporting on the allegations of Malema’s contacts with cigarette smugglers and dodgy donations being made to the EFF as well as its connections to VBS Bank. And so we need to connect the dots and continue to be sceptical of Malema and his merry band who use both the politics of spectacle and populism to sweep up a crowd.

The recklessness with which Malema speaks should be condemned, as should the thuggery we recently witnessed in our Parliament. Malema plays a dangerous game through accusation and innuendo.

Malema and Zuma are politicians cut from the same cloth – opportunistic and self-serving.

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 and is also a Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy'. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february

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