Julius Malema was very impressive last week in Parliament. ANC comrades were not. It’s worth reflecting on what happened, and why the ANC is clearly shaken and stirred.
It is too soon to have a firm overall view of the performance of Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in Parliament. Only after enough parliamentary activity has taken place can we assess whether they get the business of parliamentary oversight, and the crucial but arduous task of crafting the best possible laws.
But we had our first sighting when the EFF responded to President Jacob Zuma’s State of the National address last week. And they did very well.
EFF leader Julius Malema delivered an excellent response. At first people were skeptical: they thought he wouldn’t. We were all wrong. If we have a red beret, we would have to eat part of it, and keep the rest for a more final decision about the EFF after enough time has passed. They still have to demonstrate consistency and impact in terms of parliamentary accountability role.
First, and most importantly, the content of the speech was good. It critiqued – quite literally – the president’s analysis of the state of the nation, such as poor economic outcomes achieved (or not achieved) under the watch of President Zuma.
Malema is spot on. You cannot talk about radical socio-economic policies as your galvanizing vision without thereby conceding that until now it has not been a primary aim of your government.
Malema rattled Zuma so much it was left to ANC veteran Yunus Carrim to comically tell us all in his speech what the definition of ‘radical’ is.
It was a desperate two pronged definition to the effect of now drilling down and with renewed focus on the energy. In other words: doing your job as the government is radical. Go figure.
But the point is that Malema was framing the discussion, and that’s debate impact.
The speech was also poignant rhetorically. Any decent debate coach will tell you the best humor is humor that carries insight while getting laughter from an audience. Humour without insight is called a Leon Schuster film. Humour with insight is called The Trevor Noah show. Malema was – and this isn’t always true to him – more Trevor that Leon last week.
The best example is when he made fun of Zuma for asking us to clean up our country in the name of Nelson Mandela. To well-earned laughs, Malema pointed out that the request was the only part of Zuma’s speech during which the old-timer slowed down, looked up and repeated himself, because the rest of the speech was to serious in subject matter for him, Zuma to depart from script!
And for good measure, he added that he had no intention of listening to Zuma because clean-up projects are gimmicks.
He’d rather honour Madiba with a public service project that changes the structural injustices in our communities. Funny and bang on target analytically.
I’m recalling this detail, by the way, not because Malema clearly was memorable for me. I’m also recalling it because the coverage of the speech, especially in the printed media, reduced the speech to a spectacle. That is lazy political reporting.
Even a fake revolutionary, is capable of a good day at the political office.
Which brings me to the main media coverage about Malema’s walkout - The key reporting was simply that he had walked out, with the EFF caucus following suit.
But two points needed to be made in the analysis of that drama. First, Malema gave a compelling response about the ANC government massacring people might seem reasonable.
But that’s too quick. Do we find it unreasonable to say the National Party government killed black kids in Soweto in 1976? No. We are all clear that Verwoerd’s people were responsible for enforcing laws that trampled dignity. The distinction between an NO government and the police officers employed by an NP government holds no water in terms of fair comment.
Malema made the point with great clarity. He pointed out that when the police reduce crime, the ANC want credit as government. So why not also credited with police who commit crime?
But no, the content of this retort was less sexy in the media than repeated footage of the walkout.
This brings me to Modise. I have to credit her for remaining calm, for not taking a decision instantly but sleeping on it. Frankly, if Baleka Mbete had chaired the session, the tone would have been more adversarial.
But Modise got the decision wrong. It’s not a reasonable limitation on free speech in Parliament to ask Malema to withdraw the statement. Firstly, his defense is fair.
Secondly, and more importantly, there is greater space for provocative political dialogue in Parliament than outside it.
In terms of parliamentary privilege, he was within the legal bounds of what can be said in the rough and tumble of parliamentary debate. Her threadbare citing of free speech and limitation clauses masks a deep misunderstanding of the social space afforded MP’s to say the kind of things Malema said.
So the walkout wasn’t diva behavior. It is a case of Julius Malema 1 and Thandi Modise 0.
If there were anyone who should be embarrassed, it is the senior ANC leader, Lindiwe Sisulu, who threw cheap racial insults around and was generally obnoxious rather tan – as Dr Pallo Jorda did – try to win the argument. If Sisulu becomes president I would seriously consider emigrating,
But it’s not just the ANC who should be shaking – providing that Malema remains consistent.
I have spoken on Malema, but also Maimane had his debute speech, when he ironically spoke well. But it is Malema who broke the sound barrier. The competition between opposition parties, though, is as healthy as their collective watching of the ANC.
Who would have thought that channel 408, the parliamentary channel, could become so popular? One business person told me: ‘If that channel was up for sale, I would buy it!”
But he would have to start the hastag#thankyoueff.