Cape Town-140821-The EFF demand answers from Jacob Zuma. Picture Jeffrey Abrahams

“Pay back the money!” is an expression of disgust with errant leaders in both industry and the government, says Max du Preez.

I heard the chant “Pay back the money!” reverberating through our society the past few days, from all over the political spectrum, from the poor and the middle class.

The chant is bound to stick in our national political lexicon. Expect the first T-shirts and probably a rap song with this theme to surface soon.

My sense is that there are many more reasons why the chant struck a chord than the incident between President Jacob Zuma and EFF leader Julius Malema.

It’s not all about the R15 million or so that Zuma should pay back for the upgrades at his Nkandla villa.

That’s not a lot of money in the broader scheme of things. It is more or less the same amount that the SA Revenue Service wants Malema to pay in back taxes and penalties.

When South Africans chant “Pay back the money”, I think they mean we are sick of politicians dodging burning issues and hiding behind rhetoric, double talk, diversionary tactics, court proceedings, ad hoc committees and commissions of inquiry.

People are saying – and this was what the strategic genius and ultimate opportunist Malema sensed – that the time had come for politicians and the government to own up and be held accountable for the abuse of power, nepotism, corruption, bureaucratic incompetence, police brutality and disregard of the plight of the poor.

Ordinary South Africans have no pride any longer when they see a grand motorcade transporting an important politician.

When people say “pay up!”, they’re also addressing the owners of mines, industries and businesses who are solely focused on extracting as much profit as quickly as possible as if we have no history of colonialism and apartheid and a present of gross inequality and poverty.

“Pay back the money!” is the showing of a middle finger to the rich and powerful who are fiddling while our society is reaching the point of combustion. It was appropriate that the chant was first directed at the president of the country and ruling party.

Few of us can deny that we agreed with Malema – cheered him on, actually – when he confronted Zuma in Parliament last week, saying he was showing disrespect to democracy and institutions of our constitution and hiding behind points of order and other diversionary tactics.

Zuma and the ANC’s handling of the Nkandla affair was scandalous.

For Zuma to state that his response to the public protector’s and other reports on Nkandla was “appropriate” was an insult to Parliament and voters.

Zuma has been manipulating the criminal justice system and intelligence services for far too long to avoid appearing in court on corruption charges and to cover up other scandals like Guptagate. He deserved the EFF’s uncompromising stance.

So Malema is today a bit of a folk hero. He did what so many South Africans inside and outside the ANC have been wanting to do for a long time.

But we dare not forget that Malema himself should be confronted with a “Pay back the money!” chant too.

He’s never explained, for example, how he became the owner of several grand cars, houses and a farm and how he could afford a Breitling watch on the meagre salary of an ANC Youth League staffer. He was for long the poster boy of that disgusting phenomenon known as tenderpreneurship.

Still, Malema and his colleagues were a handy battering ram in Parliament, driving a point home in the most dramatic fashion.

But God help us if they ever got more power. From the evidence before me I cannot come to any other conclusion that Malema in power would be worse than Zuma – more like Robert Mugabe.

And spare a thought for the MPs from the DA.

Unlike the EFF, they do all the legwork, the research, the arguments in portfolio committee meetings, the legal challenges to hold the executive accountable. But during last week’s circus they were almost portrayed as irrelevant. They are not. And they shouldn’t be tempted to also start grandstanding.

In the long run, our democracy needs them and the Mosioua Lekotas and Bantu Holomisas more than we need the drama queens in red overalls.

I understand that people enjoyed the EFF’s show, but consider this: How will Parliament be able to function if it doesn’t have rules?

What happens to a soccer match if the referee is ignored? (It would have helped, of course, if that “referee” had more gravitas and respect, like Max Sisulu who was unceremoniously fired and replaced by Baleka Mbete.)

The really sad aftermath of last week’s drama was the ANC’s reaction.

There appeared to have been no introspection, just aggression and threats.

And Malema is laughing all the way to the next popularity poll.

* Max du Preez is an author and columnist.

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

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