The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) are hypocrites.
Their leaders appear unable to hold firm to their convictions when confronted with personal benefit. This holds true for many of us — hypocrisy could be taken as a given condition of being human. But these are elected officials. And, as such, we expect them to at least have the compunction to better reconcile their public utterances with their private actions. We expect them not to be entangled in the complete annihilation of the country’s first black-owned bank when they spend so much time lobbying for new ownership of the Reserve Bank, for example.
It is simply untoward for a party whose leaders style themselves as a bulwark against a corrupt elite, to be implicated — by association or otherwise — in similar behaviour. And yes, you would think that people engaged in such contradictory behaviour would be smart enough to dispose of the detritus of such contradictions themselves. Alas, not.
Their apparent penchant for pairing (expensive) champagne with (even more expensive) views over Camps Bay — after wearing red overalls in solidarity with the working class — is, according to the Daily Maverick, certainly a stark contradiction.
But it is also just that; a contradiction.
Let’s not pretend that the sanctimony that has erupted on behalf of the poor is bereft of contradiction itself. The self same people who claim to express outrage on behalf of the country’s poorest people, are also complicit in the continuing exploitation of these people. That’s you sitting there reading this on your mobile phone, made with parts that are dug out of blood-soaked ground in the Democratic Republic of Congo. And that’s you sitting there reading this in the newspaper, while a woman scurries to clean up after you.
So, leaving aside the tone of the story that resulted from the dustbin-digging, replete with its sanctimonious correction of spelling, this is part of a longer-term struggle for media organisations to try and work out how they live alongside the EFF.
What the current controversy around the EFF’s stay in Camps Bay reveals is the flimsiness of our own prejudices.
Remember that this is the same Malema, who, with the aid of a band of close friends, made a pretty penny out of public infrastructure projects in Limpopo, and debilitated parts of the province in the process. From empty plates and school feeding schemes to barely-drivable roads, the legacy of this merry band of tender riders is well known in the province.
But this Malema was played down when the EFF set itself up in opposition to the kleptocratic regime of former president Jacob Zuma. In that moment, the wily politician was transformed from the deplorable ANC Youth League leader, who demanded so much more than anyone was willing to allow, to the straight talking politician unafraid of the very party that had birthed his political rise.
His voice was audible over the deafening silence in Luthuli House, as the country was plundered by Zuma and his associates, Gupta & Partners. It was Malema’s booming cry for the president to pay back the money that would help lay a foundation for people inside the ANC to find their voices.
And so, far beyond the many hundreds of thousands of people that Malema would reach through his new political party, he also became the begrudging beloved of that part of South Africa that fancies itself politically aware, socially concerned and generally better educated than anyone else.
Malema was welcomed into spaces from which he was once denounced — his presence at events guaranteeing quotable quotes and attendance for media trying to find other sources of income. He spoke at events where the ideology was firmly fixed in rescuing South Africa from something apparently scarier than what he represents. And so he was accepted. We laughed at his jokes and he was lauded. Senior editors cosied up to him. The validity of his presence was not questioned because it was not threatening anyone except the president.
And now, Zuma is gone (although we can never be sure) so the contestation over Malema’s presence in the public sphere resumes.
Let’s be clear, it is imperative that we point out when politicians, whatever their stripes, ignore their electoral promises in favour of expediency. It is similarly imperative that we point out when politicians prefer privilege over principle. But it is also important to acknowledge that journalism does not happen in a vacuum, prejudices seep into the tone and focus of our work. This, in part, is why the newsrooms that report on our country need greater diversity — in both faces and ideology.
And Malema has certainly not been an unwitting object in the curation of the public idea of himself. He has been very astute in crafting very different versions of himself for very different audiences.
But how much champagne the fighters drink, where they drink it, their shopping sprees at fast fashion retailers, and a moral probing about whether they may or may not engage the services of sex workers, is ultimately not about Malema, or the EFF. This is fundamentally about us and how we respond to the idea of Malema.
Our prejudices, just like the principles of politicians, are not fixed. They shift constantly, often determined by our own benefit in a moment.
Because the fighters could have been up to no good in Camps Bay, or they could have been having a party with friends. But the agonising debate over what they were doing there is really a mask for an objection over the fact that they were there at all.