Cape Town - 140619 - Pictured is Julius Malema. The State of the Nation Debate started yesterday and continued today as parties debate the address the President made the evening before. Picture: David Ritchie (083 652 4951)

The huge reaction showed that Julius Malema and his colleagues had struck gold, says Max du Preez.

Pretoria - Game-changers and fearless champions of truth and justice, or attention-seeking demagogues ruthlessly exploiting all the fault lines of a fragile society?

My first instinct while contemplating the EFF’s theatrical first week in Parliament was to remind myself that this party only had 6 percent of the vote in the May election and that cheap populists should never be elevated to serious contributors to the national discourse. I have always held the position that the media shouldn’t aid and abet radicals on the fringes in their bid to grab the headlines.

But I could not get away from the truth that Julius Malema and his band in their red overalls had made a serious impact on Parliament. In fact, it is safe to state that Parliament – and South African politics – will not be the same again. More ordinary citizens watched the State of the Nation debate on television last week than at any other occasion the last 20 years.

That must also count for something.

The uncomfortable truth is that Malema and his colleagues have confronted the ANC, government and the white community in a way that many, perhaps even most citizens would have wanted to do, but few had done.

Uninhibited by niceties like non-racialism, social cohesion and economic stability and wearing the hat of black African nationalism, they insulted the president to his face, charging him with betraying history and the black struggle for real freedom, with being corrupt and incompetent – and of being afraid of white people.

The huge reaction on social media, radio talk shows, letters to newspapers and comments on news websites showed that Malema had struck gold, at least as far as the black middle class was concerned. Many of the reactions came from obvious ANC supporters, even some local office-bearers.

The charge that the ANC was scared of offending whites and that whites are all land thieves particularly went down well. About half a million people watched five YouTube clips on the EFF in Parliament last week.

On one hand, if there are many people feeling this way, then these things needed to be aired in Parliament. That is what Parliament should be: a reflection of the views, fears and dreams of voters.

On the other hand, appealing to the baser instincts in such a crude way in a country such as ours with its bitter history and delicate balances borders on the reckless.

We were all entertained by the EFF.

Here’s the problem. Most of us didn’t take note of much else going on in our highest legislative body. Too much theatre, too little substance.

President Jacob Zuma and some of his colleagues made some important points that most South Africans missed. His much clearer focus on the economy, on local government and energy was a shift from previous speeches. If it hadn’t been for the EFF’s theatrics and Zuma’s lacklustre presentation, his announcement that his government had adapted Malaysia’s famous Big Fast Results methodology into a campaign, Operation Phakisa, to set clear government targets and monitor progress would have been big news.

The reality is that the coverage of last week’s events didn’t reflect the reality that the ANC represented 62 percent of the votes and that government had leaders of substance such as Cyril Ramaphosa, Aaron Motsoaledi, Pravin Gordhan, Collins Chabane, Lindiwe Zulu, Malusi Gigaba, Nhlanhla Nene and Lindiwe Sisulu.

It also didn’t reflect the fact that the official opposition received 22 percent of popular support and has a number of talented MPs.

When I caught myself approving of some of the frank talk by the EFF MPs, I had to remind myself that Malema himself was a fat-cat tenderpreneur who had publicly and rudely humiliated a BBC reporter for speaking an uncomfortable truth.

That frontbencher Floyd Shivambu was once forced by the Equality Court to apologise for calling a senior journalist a “stupid white b***h”. That MP Andile Mngxitama had not long ago publicly encouraged physical attacks on a leftwing commentator who had dared to quote Steve Biko. That star MP Khanyisile Litchfield-Tshabalala had left the navy after she was found guilty on charges of fraud, assault and crimen injuria. So how do we solve a problem like Julius?

We appreciate it when he and his band of “fighters” pierce the veil of ANC hypocrisy and expose the government’s failures without fear of being called racists or counter-revolutionaries.

We nod when he gives an uncompromising voice to the anger of many.

But we remain cynical, remembering his past behaviour and tendencies and we don’t allow him to dominate our debates and public opinion with his unbridled populism.

We use him, rather than allow him to use us.

* Max du Preez is an author and columnist.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

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