[OPINION] Silence a luxury in these times
It’s been another frustrating South African week.
While one understands that the Ramaphosa Presidency is a "long game"- a waiting game - this week the waiting felt rather unpalatable. As year-end approaches and along with it the prospect of the South African endless summer, almost out of the blue, we have been presented with the joyless prospect of rolling load shedding. Varying bumbling explanations have been given about maintaining infrastructure and coal supply shortages. When analysts speak of coal shortages until 2025, we know that load shedding will be part of the landscape for the foreseeable future. As with everything Jacob Zuma broke, this will take a long time to fix.
Citizens feel that they are part of a passing show while listening to evidence at the Zondo commission of inquiry, with witness after witness detailing state capture and looting at a large scale. So large, one is amazed there is anything left. But then public money, in the form of various taxes, is the gift that keeps on giving.
There seems to be a "take as much as you want" culture which took root in the Zuma years and which persists in some quarters. State-owned enterprises like Eskom and SAA became sites of the looting - ditto the SABC. And so the frustration regarding load shedding is that all this was preventable. It did not have to be this way.
And yet those responsible for the looting, while shuffled out of positions, have not been held to account. Where is former Public Enterprises Minister Lynne Brown, who is alleged to have facilitated some of the capture of Eskom? She is but one example.
The appointment of National Director of Public Prosecutions Advocate Shamila Batohi is axiomatic. Ramaphosa’s choice is an excellent one. Batohi will need to prosecute those alleged to have committed acts of corruption and will need to act without fear or favour. She is a person of skill and integrity and it can only be hoped that she will breathe fresh life into the NPA. Civil society will also need to provide her with the ballast and support she needs in this tough political environment. We have this one moment to draw a line in the sand to ensure that there is no repeat of the Zuma years and its brazen looting.
But the evidence at the Zondo commission playing out live on our screens has not stopped the politics of spectacle, as former President Zuma appeared in the Pietermaritzburg High court last week. As usual, he managed to whip up crowd sentiment appealing to a nationalist and race-based narrative. All the while aided and abetted on stage by the veritable basket of deplorables - Carl Niehaus dressed in combat fatigues ensuring the media could report on his rambling monologue, former North West Premier Supra Mahumapelo and former Communications Minister Faith Muthambi - all former something or other for a good reason. Both Mahumapelo and Muthambi left governance disasters and corruption in their wake. The politics within the ANC is so warped and destructive that we should not be surprised at all this.
Zuma is now asking for a permanent stay of his prosecution. It seems he is prepared to argue any point without conscience. But then he presided over the looting of the state for 10 years, so he - and his faction within the ANC - will not go down without a fight. As usual, Zuma was consistent - he ended his address on the steps of court in the way he always does - in song. Like the emperors in Ancient Rome, he fed the crowd the “bread and games” of the circus that was his ascent to power. We are not truly rid of him or his ilk within the ANC. No doubt, despite the criminal charges against him and the corruption he presided over, he will be campaigning for the ANC ahead of the 2019 elections. If the ANC had any shame they would put him out to pasture during his trial.
Predictably, therefore, unseating a leader seems relatively easy (in Zuma’s case it was not as easy as in Mbeki’s recall) compared to undoing the project of corruption and entrenching the transparent, accountable and responsive democracy the constitution envisages.
Aristotle said: "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it". Unless, of course, you represent the EFF and its populist, unthinking brand of politics. Julius Malema and his duplicitous band of red berets have always played a double game. For Malema, like any populist, easy solutions to complex challenges of economics are bandied about carelessly. 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 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 included a fact check, show that the 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"? Insult and invective are a core part of Malema’s distracting and destructive playbook. And Malema has always seen himself as above the law, above reason and acceptable conduct. In Malema’s world, freedom of expression exists for him and no one else.
Outside the Zondo commission, a band of EFF supporters, together with Black First Land First supporters, continued "protesting" Gordhan and "white monopoly capital". What exactly do they mean by those words 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 allegedly corrupt former South African Revenue Services 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 Mutual Bank. Malema’s duplicity makes it hard to believe what he says – the Gucci lifestyle with unexplained sources of income was raised as far back as 2010. While lamenting the public education system, he has happily announced that he will continue sending his son to private school because the state system is “poor and dysfunctional”. He and his colleagues are thus able to buy themselves out of the chaos they cause. And so we need to connect the dots and continue to be sceptical of Malema and the EFF that use both the spectacle and populism to gain support.
At the recent Vodacom journalist of the year awards evening, while Corruption Watch chair Mavuso Msimang was delivering his keynote address, an image appeared on a screen behind him showing the EFF’s Malema and Floyd Shivambu with the caption, "abusers of democracy". This immediately led to the EFF declaring "war" on Vodacom. Its deputy secretary-general tweeted, "Vodacom have declared war against EFF… let’s go. Let’s see who will win this war… Fighters Let’s goooo."
"War?" But this is the kind of language Malema and the EFF have as their signature brand - war talk - in a democracy. As with the H&M store invasions, EFF supporters "protested" the mobile phone company this weekend by ransacking and looting a Vodacom store in Polokwane. This kind of thuggery - for that’s what it is - in the name of democratic politics needs to be condemned and the law needs to take its course against those who destroy and create mayhem. It happens with the imprimatur of Malema and his EFF colleagues who spew angry and violent rhetoric at anyone who dares to oppose them.
For the EFF, violent disruption or encouraging it has become a predictable pattern, which is only matched by the demagoguery Malema espouses. Malema and Zuma are politicians cut from the same cloth – opportunistic and self-serving. They are also dangerous given their ability to undermine the democratic project.
The politics of spectacle should quite simply be seen for what it is – fundamentally dishonest. We need to brace ourselves for more of this spectacle as we enter the 2019 election period. It is clear that the governing ANC is itself too compromised, confused and paralysed by division to do the important work of defending our democracy.
And so it is up to us - all of us, as citizens, civil society organisations, business and all other societal institutions - to work to ensure that the corrupt, the demagogues and those who only understand the language of violence and insult - are rejected.
Democrats across the country should heed Toni Morrison’s words: "There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilisations heal."
One might say, this is how democracies heal - by writing and speaking against that which would destroy. Silence is a luxury in these times.
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