The politics of spectacle
29 November 2018
The last few weeks have witnessed a time of politics by insult and grandiose displays of power, largely orchestrated by Julius Malema and his EFF colleagues.
Many commentators and analysts have argued that the EFF have used these tactics to control the terms of the debate on State capture, corruption and kickbacks. With the Zondo and Nugent Commissions in full swing and investigative journalists laying bare that which broke VBS Bank, there appears to be wild flailing against civility, respectful dialogue and argument, and reasoned defence - if these exist.
Matters came to a head when Minister Pravin Gordhan testified at the Zondo Commission. This ignited a public and social media onslaught on the Minister and the Zondo Commission by the EFF. Malema’s reference to Gordhan as “a dog of white monopoly capital” and the addition that, “we must beat the dog until the owner comes out” are contemptible. It attacks a fundamental constitutional mechanism of our democracy contained in Chapter 2 of the Constitution, in respect of freedom of expression. While the right is far-reaching, it does not extend to propaganda for war; incitement of imminent violence and advocacy of hatred based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.
Minister Gordhan’s response on 26 November 2018 was to lay charges of crimen injuria and criminal defamation and he has asked police to investigate the matter of incitement to violence against Julius Malema. Minister Gordhan explained his reasons as follows, “I think what we’re saying to South Africans is that we can’t any longer allow the corruption that’s going at all levels in this country to be masked by racism, by personal attacks, by family attacks and of course political attacks as well. So, we have decided enough is enough. If you want to argue with us politically that’s fine but once you lie and you attack families, and you propagate these lies widely enough, but you also start dividing South African society then it is totally unacceptable. Because race is a very inflammable factor in South Africa.”
The matter is now before both the police and the Equality Court. Malema countered Minister Gordhan’s charges by laying a slew of charges, including money laundering, corruption, racketeering, fraud, contravention of the Intelligence Act and the Prevention and Combating of Corrupt Activities Act, in addition to throwing in claims of perjury, for good measure. A day after Malema’s charges went public, News24 released its own investigation, which renders the claims fraught with factual error.
What makes for interesting observation is that the tenor of Malema’s utterances is at odds with the proposed Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill, which is intended to:
Give effect to the Republic’s obligations in terms of the Constitution and international human rights instruments concerning racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, in accordance with international law obligations;
Provide for the offence of hate crime and the offence of hate speech and the prosecution of persons who commit those offences;
Provide for appropriate sentences that may be imposed on persons who commit hate crime and hate speech offences;
Provide for the prevention of hate crimes and hate speech;
Provide for the reporting on the implementation, application and administration of this Act;
Effect consequential amendments to certain Acts of Parliament; and
Provide for matters connected therewith.
While the origins of the Bill lie in the infamous Penny Sparrow incident, it would be interesting to follow the progress of the passage of the Bill inviting public comments by end January 2019 to its full conclusion and assess its impact. If the Bill is ratified by the President before the next election, perhaps Malema may get his comeuppance sooner rather than later.
Rattling the cages (real and imagined), attacking journalists, indulging in name calling, using expletives to refer to judicial officers and general loud-mouthed exhibitionism are not endearing qualities for anyone, never mind a politician. Recourse to “spectacle and uncivil politics” as Professor Adam Habib, Vice-Chancellor of Wits University, refers to the EFF, poses a grave danger. He writes in a university publication that these behaviours and brand of politics, “fan ethnic and racial hatred, deepen divides in our society, continuously violate the rights of others and turn violent”.
South Africa is at a sensitive crossroads on virtually every front, with the nation waiting to see the dividends of amongst others, Thuma Mina, the outcomes of the Investment Summit, the various task teams set up by the President and of course the recommendations of the Nugent and Zondo Commissions. All these outcomes hinge on maturity and collective action toward building a country for all. It was precisely this sentiment that drove Minister Gordhan to lay criminal charges against Malema, and is clearly a step in the right direction if we are going to subvert the politics of hate, insult and spectacle, which are on abundant display.
Ms Zohra Dawood is Director, Centre for Unity in Diversity