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JUDITH FEBRUARY: The toddler antics of Malema's red brigade

OPINION

Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane had barely released her report into Pravin Gordhan and the Sars ‘rogue' unit when the Twitter trolls started.

It is so that Twitter is in no way reflective of society and its views - especially not in a country as unequal as ours. Yet social media has provided a very effective vehicle to mobilise opposition to Gordhan and spread disinformation and lies about everything from his time at Sars to sowing doubt about his professional qualifications. The EFF specifically has used social media incessantly as a means to harass, undermine and demean its critics. The attacks on Gordhan have been particularly unrelenting since the EFF and certain ‘radical economic transformers’ within the ANC have come to the Public Protector’s defence under the guise of protecting and defending Chapter 9 institutions after her report on the 'rogue' unit.

And so it came as no surprise when the EFF attacked Gordhan and piled pressure on President Ramaphosa to dismiss him in the wake of Mkhwebane’s findings. After all, the EFF also threatened near-violence if Ramaphosa appointed Gordhan into his post-election Cabinet. The party punches above its weight for a variety of reasons, inter alia, media keen on clickbait and the party’s ability to grasp the power that the politics of spectacle has.

In the post-2019 election world, Julius Malema and his red brigade may have more seats in Parliament, but they are not the kingmakers they claimed they might be before the election. Their 10.79% May victory was not what they had hoped for. It has become difficult for the party to recreate itself as constructive opposition in this period and so, like a toddler, it has resorted to proverbially kicking and screaming.

The EFF has never really found it necessary to engage in constructive politics, after all. During the Zuma years, ‘Pay back the money!’ was a convenient, cheap and easy slogan, even as some of the leaders of the EFF were themselves allegedly engaged in looting VBS Bank. They were a ‘one-trick pony’ party then, riding on their ability to shine a light on Zuma’s corruption. A Ramaphosa presidency has provided less space for such blatant allegations, though naturally the EFF has sought to exploit the Bosasa allegations against Ramaphosa.

This is the same party that continued spirited support for the allegedly corrupt former South African Revenue Services Commissioner Tom Moyane. The EFF bears a certain animus towards Gordhan himself.

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 and, of course, the VBS Bank connections. Malema’s 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”. The duplicity is real.

In addition, 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. Late last year, Malema engaged in more name-calling when he called his political rivals "dogs".

At last year’s 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 by subsequently ransacking and looting a Vodacom store in Polokwane. It all happened with the imprimatur of Malema and his EFF colleagues who spew angry and violent rhetoric at anyone who dares to oppose them.

What was specifically unconscionable and disgraceful about the attacks on Gordhan was the racist nature of some of the tweets, referring to Gordhan’s ethnicity, mocking his given name of Jamnadas. Being Indian was Gordhan’s "crime", it would appear, in the same way as Malema race-baits white people. It is the same prejudice that has been levelled at the new Sars commissioner, Edward Kieswetter, and the same sexism that has been levelled at Maria Ramos recently appointed to the interim PIC board. It is a deliberate strategy of deflection and we should see and judge it for what it is - straight out of a fascist playbook.

While the race-baiting on Twitter was unedifying and has no place in a democratic society, a true low point was reached on Thursday as Gordhan stood to deliver his Budget vote speech in room E249 in Parliament. As Gordhan spoke, the EFF raised countless points of order in an immature abuse of process. The chair eventually asked whether they were not going to "allow" Gordhan to speak? "Allow"? This is Parliament. It is supposed to be at the very heart of democratic deliberation and yet a minister is not "allowed" to speak?

Up to that point we had seen this all before from the EFF - disruption, disrespect, shouting abuse and disregarding the Chair. It was all on painful display during the Zuma years. Whatever one thought of Zuma and his disregard for the people and his breaches of the Constitution, the institution of Parliament needs to be undergirded with respect and appropriate conduct.

As the noise level increased in E249, an EFF MP rose and then along with all the other EFF MPs present, rose and surrounded Gordhan. It was an act of intimidation, and an act of violation within the very precincts of the People’s Parliament.

Why were they surrounding Gordhan - to attack him physically? Never before has anyone been physically surrounded by MPs threatening violence in Parliament. A new low.

In the moment, the DA’s Natasha Mazzone almost instinctively rose from her chair to take her place next to Gordhan, hesitatingly trying to form some kind of single-woman phalanx against the thuggery. She was ushered aside by John Steenhuisen. In the midst of this confusing fracas, there was this strangely poignant moment where a flash of dignity was on display, both in Gordhan’s action of standing firm and Mazzone’s trepidatious move.

That moment was, however, one of sheer disgrace for the EFF, and sadly for us all.

Gordhan, a man who is a tough nut to crack and who does not suffer fools, stood firm and said, "They must touch me!" Eventually the thuggery ended as parliamentary security was called, while a female EFF MP could be heard screaming expletives at Gordhan. This is the EFF’s version of democracy.

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 brand of politics with its easy nod to violence.

Gordhan has filed a blistering affidavit in response to the Public Protector’s charges against him. He is fully within his rights to do so and like any citizen, has the protection of the law and the right to appeal, review and interdict whomever he wishes. That is what happens in a society that is governed by the rule of law.

What was on display in Parliament on Thursday was a disgrace, but also indicated a strange desperation by the EFF. One only engages in physical intimidation when one cannot win an argument by force of logic.

Gordhan eventually delivered his speech and the EFF achieved nothing but the disruption they have become known for. Afterwards, Gordhan wryly remarked that these were the actions of those who sought to defend the state capture project. He is right. The EFF are now firmly in that camp and doubtless working alongside those within the ANC who would want to see the back of Ramaphosa, Gordhan and their clean-up.

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 this high stakes politics plays out between the Public Protector and Gordhan. In the meantime, the Speaker of Parliament, Thandi Modise, must act against the thuggery of the EFF. Parliament should never experience such a moment again. In terms of the Rules of Parliament, the relevant EFF MPs should face the toughest sanction without delay.

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' which is available. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february

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