Eusebius McKaiser. File picture: Jason Boud

Capitalising on the leadership mess, militant bombasts are preying on the destitute's hunger and desperation, writes Eusebius McKaiser.

It is obviously tempting to dismiss a bombastic militant idiot as a waste of precious discursive space. But given the social and political volatility South Africa is experiencing, we’re compelled, as a matter of democratic prudence, to beware of militant bombasts.

The despicably irresponsible militant bombast leading the ANC Youth League, Collen Maine, requires a few minutes of our critical discussion. More than that would render his rambles more important than they ought to be in a marketplace of ideas that crowds out madness, falsehoods, and speech acts that aim to intimidate rather than to engage rationally.

You may wonder what I'm referring to if you spent the weekend taking a respite from the various national crises we’re failing to address adequately.

Well, on Saturday, at a #HandsOffZuma rally, Maine called on Umkhonto weSizwe military veterans to defend President Jacob Zuma. He shouted: “Comrades from Umkhonto weSizwe, bring your guns. Now is the time to defend the revolution. We must do it. Generations that came before did it. They sacrificed their lives.”

My first reaction when I saw the clip is that perhaps I was watching a poorly produced high school play in which an overzealous naughty kid was playing the role of some present-day Idi Amin in a self-scripted dystopian work about the dangers of violent rhetoric.

Then I realised it was one Collen Maine, yet again. On the one hand, it’s tempting to ignore him and move on. We’re certainly not short of far more urgent crises to discuss, debate and problem-solve collectively, from the #FeesMustFall protests to more enduring and related ills like deep inequality, near-zero economic growth, apartheid geography’s spatial legacy, a state performing suboptimally, business pretending to be above the fray, and so on.

But here’s the snag. Tragicomic characters like Maine can easily, if we’re not vigilant, gain in popularity during times of deep discontent and social volatility. There's a marketplace for populism and militancy in a society as grossly unequal as ours.

And while the romance of a liberal democratic constitutional vision is wearing off, not everyone is responding carefully to the leadership and institutional vacuums that have opened, and the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Legitimate feelings and experiences of marginality can be exploited by militant bombasts. They prey on the hunger of the destitute and on the desperation of the exploited working class, and they capitalise on the leadership mess within the state, within the ANC and within big business.

That is the context within which to situate the violent rhetoric and agitation for violence from Maine.

On the one side, you have political opponents of the morally bankrupt ANC, such as the EFF, which exploits the social discontent. EFF leader Julius Malema casually warned businesses in Tshwane that a massive popular march by his supporters on November 2 can't be guaranteed to end in their safety.

You don’t need to be a cunning linguist to see through his veiled threat. This too was an exhibition of militant bombast. It was most unsubtle.

Malema, like Maine, sees the market for populism and militancy, and both are gleefully exploiting it, regardless of the effect on our democracy. Their megalomaniac expressions of narcissism are at the expense of building a sustainable democracy that may yet deliver on its much punted promises from the early 1990s.

It’s little wonder that segments of even the student movement are beginning to experiment uncritically with this resort to militancy. A clip in the news cycle features a student leader making the pseudo-profound distinction between militancy and violence, rejecting the latter in student praxis while defending militancy as morally and strategically permissible.

That’s all romance, I’m afraid. Militancy begets real violence.

And that’s why Braamfontein in Joburg found itself lit up on Friday night. There is no proof that students were responsible for the SABC van or another vehicle being set alight, nor is there in an uncontroversial chronology of confirmed facts.

That is cold comfort for all of us. Who starts a fire is less important than that fires are being started. But in a context within which militant bombasts show off their linguistic dexterity when it comes to violent speech acts, it shouldn't surprise anyone that actual violence can be started and oxygenated with the help of a demagogue or two.

Maine is obviously trying to suck up to President Zuma and sing for his supper despite already having overeaten at the trough. He is sucking up by matching militancy with militancy.

That is dangerous. It foments the social conditions conducive to internecine conflict across complex and multiple fault lines in society. He is doing so by pretending that there is moral equivalence between fighting apartheid and defending Zuma.

That’s rubbish. Apartheid was wholly evil. Our democracy isn’t wholly evil. It is just imperfect. And it’s imperfect because Zuma is wholly incompetent, uninterested and looting with impunity.

The big question as we puzzle through this mess is: Where have all the good men and women in the ANC gone? Cyril Ramaphosa, hastily revered by all and sundry, it would seem, appears to have fled into exile. The ANC itself appears to have fled into exile.

* Eusebius McKaiser is the best-selling author of A Bantu In My Bathroom and Could I Vote DA? A Voter’s Dilemma. His new book - Run, Racist, Run: Journeys Into The Heart Of Racism - is now available nationwide, and online through Amazon.