The EFF twisted the arm of Parliament even with a scant 25 seats. Sy Makaringe looks at what the daring red army will do with 44.
The complexion of the parliamentary chamber is going to get redder after Julius Malema’s EFF increased its representation by 19 seats to 44 after the almost six-year-old party upticked its electoral share in last week’s general elections.
Juju is not only a shrewd politician, he is also a master tactician, a skillful strategist, a clever self-made marketer and an excellent, unconventional brand manager.
He hates playing second fiddle to anyone. He always wants to be number one. It’s in his DNA.
Journalist and author Fiona Forde puts this starkly in the biography she wrote on Malema, aptly titled An Inconvenient Youth.
So when Malema’s party won only 6.35% of the vote in 2014, a paltry figure by any standards, he knew that his presence in Parliament would most likely not be noticed or enable him to make a meaningful impact unless he came up with something drastic. The thought of just making up the numbers in the National Assembly terrified him. He wanted to be noticed and take centre stage. He wanted to be heard. He wanted to take charge. That’s what defines him.
With the ANC having 249 MPs and the official opposition DA 89, Malema knew his 25-strong army stood no chance.
It was at this point that he decided to unilaterally change the rules of the game to suit him. His troops emerged in the National Assembly kitted out in red attire: men in red overalls or work suits and red berets or hard hats, and women in red pinafores and multicoloured domestic workers’ doeks.
This was ostensibly to demonstrate to everyone watching them, either in the House or on TV, that they were there to represent the interests of the working class, the downtrodden, the homeless and the forgotten. They portrayed themselves as the genuine liberators of the masses and the real custodians of the struggle for economic freedom because political freedom alone is no freedom.
By extension, this made the struggle waged by organisations such as the ANC during the dark days of our history look largely irrelevant. They wanted to show everyone that it had amounted to nothing. The message was both emotive and emotional. You couldn’t not take notice.
But we all knew that, under those overalls and work suits lay hidden Breitling watches, and expensive designer shirts and jeans.
Huddled together on one side of the House in their red outfits, their visual impact betrayed their limited numerical strength. You could not possibly miss them.
With optics alone, they dislodged Mmusi Maimane’s DA from its lofty position as the official opposition. The helpless and hapless Maimane became a lame duck leader of the opposition. He had the numbers, but the EFF had the presence.
Suited MPs such as the Inkatha Freedom Party’s Mangosuthu Buthelezi and the ANC’s Gugile Nkwinti, both of the old stock, cringed and squirmed in their seats in embarrassment as the red army took over the space and owned it. Nothing like that had happened or been seen in the House, where a few individuals could boss the majority around at will.
Some of the MPs muttered under their breaths and wondered what Parliament had degenerated into. But Malema and his crowd were unapologetic, unperturbed and unashamed. That they were new to the business, that they were Johnnies-come-to-Cape-Town-lately did not bother them. It actually did not show.
They will return to Parliament in a few days with a number of #FeesMustFall activists in tow. You can expect more action and trouble in paradise.
Aside from causing chaos; belittling, insulting and mocking fellow MPs; and boastfully claiming to be the sole custodians of “superior logic”, did the red berets contribute meaningfully to parliamentary business?
Yes, they did. They used their visual vantage point to good effect to enrich the South African conversation. They were at the forefront of making former president Jacob Zuma pay back the money after he “unduly benefited” from the upgrades to his home in Nkandla, even though the move was driven more by the desire to settle personal scores.
They forcefully brought the burning land debate back to the national agenda when no one else could or would. Thanks to them, the land question is being thoroughly, robustly and honestly debated by all South Africans. The nation is much better for it. Even the lethargic ANC woke up from its deep slumber and tried to set the direction and take ownership of the debate.
Every generation has its own disrupters whose actions, unpalatable though they might seem at first, help to change the course of history, usually for the better. What seems impossible suddenly becomes possible, just as the #FeesMustFall movement demonstrated.
The struggle to liberate South Africa would probably have taken longer had the non-violent stance of the ANC’s old guard not have been defied by the younger generation of the time.
We all know how the huge blow inflicted on the apartheid government by the Class of 1976 quickened the pace of the struggle.
The arrival of Malema and company in Parliament in their red outfits upended the normality and tossed the rulebook out the window.
The unwritten rule is that MPs must be formally dressed – in suits and ties for men, and dresses for women.
When former president Nelson Mandela appeared in Parliament, he left his famous colourful shirts at home and donned a suit and tie. It was his way of showing respect for the institution.
But the EFF did not see it that way. They wanted to do things their way. They saw the gap and used it. But by so doing, they have gained an unfair advantage, visually speaking, over other parties.
Concerned about being upstaged by upstarts in this way, the ANC used its majority to try to introduce new dress code guidelines that would ban the wearing of overalls and hard hats, and restore the decorum of Parliament.
Malema vowed, in his combative style, to defy the ban. He threatened to report to Parliament naked if it dared to go ahead and introduce the guidelines. Parliament saw red, in more ways than one, and the plan was abruptly abandoned, or shelved, and Malema won the day once again.
What now for the South African Parliament? Are other MPs going to continue to allow themselves to be bullied by a group that constitutes only a tenth of the House? Are they going to continue to watch their EFF counterparts flaunt what are essentially their party colours while their own brands suffer?
Or are they, too, going to turn up in their party colours – black, green and gold for the ANC, and blue for the DA – to neutralise the EFF’s visual dominance and risk being accused of lacking originality or superior logic? Is our Parliament going to be a kaleidoscope of colours from now on?
Is our Parliament going to be a joke or is this how it is going to shake off its colonial vestiges and appendages?
Are we seeing the beginning of the birth of a real African Parliament?
The next few years will most likely give us the answer.
Makaringe is an independent journalist based in Johannesburg
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