EFF leader Julius Malema is prepared to go to extremes to attract publicity, says Douglas Gibson.
Julius Malema is engaged in an image war. And he is good at it. Almost every week he and his followers put on a stunt that catapults the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) on to the front pages of every newspaper in the country. The more dramatic and in your face the action, the more the media report on it.
Malema represents only a small number of voters – 6 percent – and he has less black support than does the DA. He has virtually no support among other population groups.
But he claims continually that the EFF is a “government in waiting”. It is arrant nonsense, of course, because 94 percent of the voters reject him and his party.
It would take more than a political earthquake for him to attract the millions of extra votes needed, but the mere thought sends shivers up the spines of many.
Every time he says it, there are people who look uneasily at their investments and resolve to move more money offshore or at least into equities and assets based well away from the greedy fingers of the EFF.
The people who shudder most at Malema’s ambitions are people in the private sector who provide jobs and most of the taxes that keep South Africa working. Without them there would be no social security network for 16 million people.
Of course, Julius Malema does not understand that.
There is no doubt that Malema is a remarkable politician. A few years ago no one had heard of him whereas today he has enormous name recognition.
Everything he does is aimed at increasing his image of power and influence and his status as a fighter for the poor.
It is mostly a pose; the tenderpreneur, elitist natty dresser and bling-loving follower of fast cars and flashy boys’ toys, has become a red overall wearer in public.
Facing many serious criminal charges relating to his honesty or lack of it, he has tried to become a standard bearer against corruption.
He is an enfant terrible prepared to say anything, do anything, trash anything to attract publicity. He makes no excuse for his conduct, glorifying it as being part of his declared cause of fighting for the rights of the poor.
He underestimates the intelligence of poor people. In his patronising way, he thinks of them as cannon fodder for his own ambitions, not realising that most voters are not stupid. Wearing red overalls does not make him a worker.
Even if they are uneducated, most people understand what is in their interests and the EFF is far from demonstrating that it can do anything real for them.
Analysing what the party has done in the two months since the election one struggles to think of a concrete proposal or a properly thought out policy position that could promote the economy and thus the aspirations of the unemployed.
The total effort appears to have been to attract publicity by any means, but more particularly by disparaging, denigrating and trashing democratic institutions and symbols. The more anarchic the behaviour, the better.
What is to be done about all of this? The first thing is to respect the democratic choice of 6 percent of our voters. They elected members of Parliament and the provincial legislatures. EFF MPs and MPLs are entitled to play their part in those bodies.
They must be encouraged and helped to do so. Silly hang-ups about displays of red overalls are… silly. Parliament and the legislatures can comfortably ignore such juvenility.
They are also entitled to parliamentary privilege and to freedom of speech.
If anyone seeks to curb that, it will be wrong and must be resisted by all the other MPs.
It is the job of the opposition chief whip to protect all opposition members and I am sure the excellent John Steenhuisen will not be found wanting in this.
Even if the EFF says outrageous things, it is generally entitled, within the rules, to say them.
When there is a flagrant breach of the rules by the EFF or a deliberate flouting of good order to the extent that the rights of other members are breached, or the dignity of Parliament is damaged, then the EFF must pay the price.
Parliament, as the representative institution of all our people, is an immensely valuable aspect of democracy. It operates in a highly contested atmosphere but members are treated as honourable members, irrespective of their political views.
A measure of inter-party co-operation is essential on the basis of MAD (mutually assured destruction) because if that breaks down, anarchy will triumph and democratic values will be ignored or destroyed.
Gossip in the corridors of Parliament is that EFF members each have to pay to the party a hefty proportion of their salaries. The talk is that the money is used to pay Malema’s continuing commitment to the South African Revenue Service (Sars).
If EFF MPs cannot be induced to behave reasonably, it will not be long before Parliament starts imposing fines for unacceptable conduct.
If significant numbers of MPs are deprived of a month’s salary every now and then, one might start finding that the behaviour improves before Malema’s arrangement with Sars comes unstuck and he again faces insolvency and his removal from Parliament.
In addition, instances of criminal conduct, theft, damage to public property and trespassing cannot be allowed to go unpunished. We read that many criminal cases were opened after the fracas at the Gauteng Legislature.
The public must insist that these are properly prosecuted and that the cases not be allowed to trickle away to nothing.
Public representatives are not entitled to behave like that; they should be held to higher standards of conduct than ordinary members of the public.
Malema’s forthcoming trial on numerous serious charges needs to be properly handled by the National Prosecuting Authority. If he is found guilty, he must pay the penalty. With him in prison for a few years, the EFF will rapidly shrivel like a balloon without air.
If he is found not guilty, then he should resist the siren voices comparing him to some of the figures in history and telling him how wonderful he is. It is easy to fall prey to delusions of grandeur when the media lionise one.
This week he was described as a new Hitler. I prefer to think of him as a new Benito Mussolini, arrogant, full of wind, funny uniforms and pseudo titles.
He should remember how both of those gentlemen ended.
* Douglas Gibson is a retired attorney and a writer, political commentator, analyst and public speaker. He previously served as South Africa’s ambassador to Thailand.
** The opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent those of Independent Newspapers.