Liberals, centrists, ANC apparatchiks and foreign investors treated President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address like it was a religious epiphany. If you happen to be a progressive or even gently left of centre, the speech was far more profane. For the Economic Freedom Fighters, it was an occasion to whip the president on ideology. Instead, they slapped a parliamentary bouncer and invented an assassination plot. Two years ago, the red berets held all the moral authority. Now they’re behaving like clowns.
Unless you’re a mining executive or a Bosasa security camera technician, if Gwede Mantashe calls you for any reason, you know you’re doomed. And yet, during his widely lauded (and vastly under-criticised) State of the Nation Address, there stood President Ramaphosa, boasting about the Minister of Mineral Resource ringing him up with some astonishing news.
“Last night”, said the President, like a magician about to pull a lemon-butter spatchcock chicken out of a carburetor, “I received a call from Minister Gwede Mantashe when he told me that the oil giant Total would be making a big announcement today about a new world-class oil and gas discovery off the coast of South Africa.”
Cue hysterical Business Day articles about R1-trillion-worth of gas reserves, and as many ideas for how to utilise this money in “sovereign wealth funds” and other great schemes recently used in Angola.
Historically, French corporations have been the most corrupt scumbags operating on the African continent — a genuine achievement — and while Total will no doubt profess to having cleaned up its act, we all know the, ahem, drill. The last thing that this country needs is a resource curse, but let’s face it: God hates us, probably for a bunch of things that were said during the apartheid regime.
It’ll take a while for the oily goop and undersea farts to make their way to the surface, but when the process begins, President David Mabuza and his DP, Julius Malema, will no doubt remind South Africans that oil doesn’t have to be a scourge. Look at Norway, they’ll say. And their critics will roll their eyes in their tiny, overcrowded prison cells, thinking of the dystopian wastelands of Fort McMurray, where the Canadian dream went to die among all the oil-slicked ducks and mutant fish people.
It wasn’t just the oil ‘n gas, though. Ramaphosa resurrected an old idea, promising to split Eskom into three distinct utilities, in order to streamline the bankrupt, corruption-prone SOE. That was a reasonable idea back in 2000, when it was first promulgated, and it remains a reasonable idea. It would have the benefit, at least to “stakeholders”, of reducing costs and slashing the labour bill. But it comes with massive social costs, and it will usher in a new war with unions and labour activists, who can’t help but notice that unemployment in this country sits at around 37%, and that it wasn’t the average worker who caused this bastard of a mess.
At the beginning of Zuma’s reign, the utility produced 40,000MW of juice, had 32,000 employees and was R40-billion in the hock. In one of the most spectacular failures of all time, it now produces 48,000MW, has 47,000 workers, a wage bill of R33-billion, and is a staggering R440-billion in the red. Ramaphosa was deputy president for four of those nine years.
Oh, and did I mention that Nigeria reformed its state-owned power utility in much the same way that Ramaphosa is proposing, and it turned into a whorehouse for private contractors, consultants and corrupt officials. Certainly worthy of a discussion, no?
But back to SONA.
On land, the president has stolen the EFF’s policies much the same way the land was stolen in the first place. On the environment, the president said nothing. Not. One. Thing. In the United States, young leftists of colour are presenting radical green plans and have establishment Democrats in a chokehold, and yet here, nothing.
It was 35 degrees Centigrade in Cape Town during the address, and not a fucking word.
Last, there was Ramaphosa’s bombshell announcement: the National Directorate for Prosecutions (NPA) will soon set up its own Scorpions-style standalone State Capture investigation and prosecution unit. This, especially for those who have campaigned against the ANC’s rotten patronage network, should be worthy of unambiguous celebration, especially if the NPA goes after corporate criminals and apartheid cold files at the same time. This could start ushering real justice into our accountability-free culture, and should make everyone deliriously happy.
Unless, of course, you recently happened to have robbed a bank.
In other words, there was at least something for a party on the left to admire and support, but much more to full-throatedly decry. Workers! Privatisation! Oilagarchy! The environment!
And quoting America’s most racist president, Teddy Roosevelt, instead of one of roughly 5,000 articulate African writers or politicians!
Instead, the EFF settled on a fist fight.
As they were leaving the National Assembly, the EFFers managed to engineer a scenario in which an MP named Marshall Dlamini slapped one of the so-called White Shirts, AKA parliamentary security service, AKA bouncers. According to eye-witnesses, the slap appeared to have been entirely unprovoked, and left the warrant officer bleeding.
The white shirts have not been neutral figures in our little national dramedy. Under the Zuma regime, they routinely bounced EFF members out of the assembly, most famously during the SONA disruptions that defined the former president’s latter years. Many a haymaker was thrown, and EFF MPs — including women — were left bloodied after these altercations. It was really ugly and really upsetting, and there was always a feeling after those dust-ups that this country was going down the authoritarian kleptocratic shitter faster than it deserved.
A feeling that was entirely justified.
But Ramaphosa’s presidency, for all its faults, has been treated as a re-set, largely because his opponents have no choice — at least not in the immediate future. Everyone within the EFF leadership acknowledges this fact, just as they presumably understand that Ramaphosa’s success will only be bolstered by a strong opposition pushing him on issues of the day. (See: land). This is the political reality, which is why there was no tension and no aggression in the National Assembly last Thursday: Ramaphosa even cheerfully nodded to the red berets in his opening statements. The night could have — should have — ended with a whimper, rather than a bang.
But this is a violent country. Out in the streets, South Africans suffer appalling casualty rates from the war we’re waging on ourselves, while the authorities and their corporate adjuncts retain a monopoly on violence that just last week left a DUT student named Mlungisi Madonsela dead following protests at the institution. Again, the EFF knows this, just as they know that their constituency stews in a vat of constant threat and violence, much of it a result of the garish levels of inequality that define this place.
And yet the EFF, largely sheltered from real life and its attendant unpleasantness, decided to perform violence, to pantomime it. Was this just the petulant act of men and women who have come to feel a special form of infantile entitlement: the need for constant, unrelenting attention, even when they have nothing to say? Is slapping a white bouncer a symbolic slight on white people, and a vicious blow against white supremacy? Or was it another big fucking waste of time from a party that appears too content to wait out the Ramaphosa era by evoking the crudest possible form of racial divisiveness?
Or was it something else entirely???? The following day, the EFF released a press release that was basically peerless, and it went like this:
EFF STATEMENT ON THE ASSASSINATION THREAT ON THE CIC JULIUS MALEMA DURING THE SONA
Friday, 8 February, 2019
The EFF has received media enquiries regarding an assassination threat on the life of the CIC, Julius Malema which had been planned to be executed during the 2019 State of the Nation Address yesterday.
The security threat implicates elite members of the police, who are in collaboration with right wing groups to take the life of the CIC, in an attempt to undermine the advances on the expropriation of land without compensation discourse, that will soon be law.
We are told that the Parliamentary Security Service, a.k.a “white shirts”, have been infiltrated by these groups and targeted the occasion of the SONA to execute the assassination. The hope was that the EFF caucus would be kicked out of the house, using the parliamentary security (white Shirts). The anticipated evil acts would then be carried out during this moment of chaos. The EFF can confirm this and any further inquiries regarding this threat must be directed to the SAPS and the minister of police.
Accordingly, when the CIC, Malema, and the EFF leadership were unreasonably stopped by these white shirts in parliament, after the house had been adjourned, we all thought this was the moment and reacted with the necessary self-defence. The event of a white security man in black and white, being pushed and clapped in the face, followed him violently pulling the CIC Malema, from passing through the corridor doors of the National Assembly.
This is sadly unimaginative, if entirely implausible. How about the following:
EFF STATEMENT ON THE ALIEN BODY-SWAPPING THREAT TO THE CIC JULIUS MALEMA DURING THE SONA
“The EFF has received media enquiries regarding a UFO invasion threat on the life of the CIC, Julius Malema which had been planned to be executed during the 2019 State of the Nation Address yesterday.
The threat was a Men In Black-style situation where shapeshifting aliens would take on the form of elite members of the police. The aliens are called the Galactatrons, and they are intent on taking the CIC back to their planet and sucking his brains through a straw, in fear that the expropriation of land without compensation debate could have universal implications, given that the Galactatrons are an intergalactic white racist alien race who have stolen roughly 7,000 planets prior to developing designs on Earth.”
Better? At least it’s fantastical enough to share a genre with the party’s nutso election manifesto.
Regardless, South Africans have been served another classic EFF 2.0 combo-meal — a bullshit burger with a side of political incoherence. In their current iteration, they’re a warmed-over 70s-style nationalist party made up of people mostly under the age of 40. It’s the saddest local political decline on record.
Desk-bound commentators, a cohort that is heavily over-represented in South Africa, tend to insist that the EFF were destined to become a bunch of lying thugs. But destiny isn’t a thing. This was a choice. It was a choice to release an election manifesto that reads like Robert A. Heinlein on crack. It was a choice to back insanely crooked former SARS head Tom Moyane in his face-off with Ramaphosa. It’s a choice to punch first and write a press release later.
Do you require an example of how his new brand of thugulism bears results? Just witness what happened when a bunch of EFFers razed a Vodacom store because the company’s journalism awards hung posters that were decreed offensive to the sensibilities of the leadership. (Not racist. Not sexist. Not libellous. Offensive to the leadership.) The very next day this giant of corporate South Africa bent a knee before the regent-in-waiting and … apologized.
It should matter that, going by the footage, the EFF representatives mostly traumatised a bunch of working-class black women, but hey … it’s South Africa. The performance of male rage is the only commodity that counts.
The ANC is now tentatively run by corporatists allied to President Ramaphosa, and they have already bent their own knees before the altar of expropriation without compensation. They are as brittle as new ice, and their wealth has — to their astonishment — given them power that they are too ashamed to use, while stripping them of confidence, of coherent ideology, of ideas. With very few exceptions, they will all bend. At an election conference in the near future, Malema will knock them over like so many tin men.
But surely wise South Africans understand that the EFF have blown all their political capital on defending assholes like Moyane. Yes, for many South Africans, they are finished. But what most commentators have missed is that Malema has sent a message bottle out into the ocean of the future. And the note inside reads:
We will always, and faithfully, run interference for our benefactors. We will never abandon our funders and our secret champions. If you pay, we play.
This message is welcome not only to the likes of scuzzbags like cigarette kingpin and EFF funder Adriano Mazzotti. It’s also poetry to the ears of those inside the ANC who believe that constitutionalism is a sham that ring-fences white wealth, and for those who insist that transformation isn’t just moving too slowly, it simply doesn’t exist at all. The EFF are promising their many backers within the Congress that they will fight not against the capture of the state by a connected elite, but for it. In this, a large number of politically connected individuals believe that their behaviour is not pathetic and immoral, but rather iron-willed and principled.
Now, the reckoning is coming. Should the National Director of Public Prosecution, Shamila Batohi, get her new unit set up, Malema and his allies within the ANC are under grave threat. Their role in the VBS saga will face scrutiny, and regardless, the gap for skimming money will close significantly. The EFF banks on Malema’s celebrity status, which is significant — within the ANC, he can still go right to the top. But that means not going to jail, or going to jail for a short enough time that he can explain it away in well-produced campaign adverts. And yet, almost everyone in the ANC — including Ramaphosa — is terrified of them, because they know that the Congress a) has robbed them blind and b) has nothing to offer the millions of South Africans who consider Malema a folk hero.
Regardless of how they do at the polls, in the months to come the EFF will remain weak but vicious. The ANC will remain in charge but supine. It’s an absurd situation, but this is the end result of the Zuma years. Total is going to cut through this place like we’re warm French butter.
Richard Poplak for DM