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Our democracy is now a thug’s game

The slippery benefit of short-term hindsight and the precariousness of trusting a self-confessed thug notwithstanding, Gayton McKenzie‘s embrace of the title of “thug”, as well as his description of Julius Malema as a “fellow thug” in his recent open letter to the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader, may be as prophetic as it is symbolic.

Originally taken from the Hindi language, in which it referred to members of a gang of robbers and assassins who strangled their victims, the word “thug” has come to denote a dangerous common criminal whose main, if not only, means of communication and self-expression is physical assault or the threat of it.

Though our politicians and parliamentarians are not necessarily renowned for their physical combat skills, they may, by commission or omission, contribute to various threats and forms of “assault” on our constitutional democracy. This is where McKenzie’s notion of the politician as thug and the thug as a politician can be helpful.

His notion could be prescient, on account of the multidimensional forms and levels of thuggery now frequently displayed in our National Assembly and recently performed rather dramatically on the occasion of the 2015 State of the Nation address.

These events are symbolic manifestations of deep-seated problems in the visions of the political parties to which we have entrusted the hallowed functions of lawmaking and governance.

Though as yet unproven, Mackenzie’s allegations about Malema are serious. His letter restates the allegation that Malema is preparing to leave his followers in the lurch when he goes back to his “father”, tail between his legs and red beret under his armpit, like a prodigal son.

Meanwhile, not one but two roses have sprouted from a crack in the EFF’s concrete floor (metaphor borrowed from Tupac Shakur) – two EFF splinter groups have emerged in the past six months. There is also the small matter of money owed to the South African Revenue Service by Malema. Not that the service has covered itself in glory lately – it has recently been accused of some seriously thuggish operations.

So should the honourable Malema be declared insolvent, he will part ways with his seat in Parliament much faster and more permanently than he was parted from it on the evening of February 12.

Malema and the EFF should be drying up like a raisin in the sun and stinking like rotten meat by now (metaphors borrowed from Langston Hughes). Yet the EFF is kicking butt. In 20 years of democracy, no opposition party has unsettled the ruling party as much. And no opposition politician has had as much impact as Malema. And yet few opposition parties have been as thin on content as the EFF has so far.

The style of dress they brought into Parliament is calculated to disrupt and caricature: to disrupt the status quo and to caricature the poor, even if the latter happens inadvertently. Through hollow but evocative symbols, populist bluster and exaggerated gestures, the EFF and Malema seek to revive the revolution.

With their red overalls and maids’ uniforms, they are searching for a performance akin to that of Nelson Mandela when he appeared dressed in a traditional Thembu chief’s leopard skin in court in October 1962. The EFF and Malema are looking for, and trying to ignite, mini-revolutions and mini-struggles.

They do not need to look too hard. Communities unhappy with municipal services and workers who are unhappy with their wages provide a fertile hunting ground.

Crucially, the EFF also poses as a speaker of truth to power. Because it takes this posture at a time when the space for genuine debate and dissent is dwindling in the ANC itself, the EFF’s shenanigans may inspire some.

Here is the bad (or good) news: Malema and the EFF are not about to disappear. All they need to do is to stick around and they might even get slightly more votes next time around. There is a generation of angry, disappointed and hopeless youths in this country. They will vote for the EFF without thinking twice.

The much-anticipated EFF internal revolt could be nothing much more than the actions of people who have belatedly recognised the EFF as a thing of such political (and monetary!) beauty that it is worth capturing for themselves and their friends.

Admittedly, the thuggish attempts from all sides to capture and own the EFF, like the thuggish manoeuvres aimed at the capture of state organs, enterprises and facilities, may yet turn ugly.

In the world of thuggery, there are no angels and no devils. I was at the ANC’s 52nd elective conference at Polokwane in 2007 when these kinds of scenes, now exported to Parliament, first surfaced.

So far the EFF has set the pace and the tone for the opposition parties and the ruling party – but Musi Maimane’s Democratic Alliance is catching on fast.

There are other examples of thuggery at play in our beloved country. Take Nkandla, the private home of the president, which was renovated and improved at taxpayers’ expense for “security reasons” – an act of thuggery and daylight robbery.

Yet the ANC appears to think the president is owed an apology by those who imply any wrongdoing and by those who carried out the renovations and additions to his homestead – improvements the ANC says the president did not request. They seem to think it a small and irrelevant detail that the president may have benefited disproportionately from these renovations.

If the invasion of a parliamentary session by armed police and the violent actions they carried out in front of elected representatives, including damage to property, are not acts of thuggery, what is? In fact, the decision to call the police in to remove elected representatives of the people who had at that point done nothing more than ask a question was thuggery.

When Bob Marley sang “We’re jammin’ “, I’m convinced he did not mean to encourage the unconstitutional jamming of phone and data signals in a democratically elected parliamentary session. But this too was a blatant act of thuggery.

And now, the nation holds its breath as our honourable thugs meet again.

Professor Tinyiko Maluleke teaches at the University of Pretoria

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