2014-12-21 15:00

Say what you like about the Economic Freedom Fighters, but the men and women in red berets coined the most popular saying of the year when they bellowed “Pay back the money!” to President Jacob Zuma in Parliament.

It was a war cry that saw riot police storm the parliamentary precinct. It shortened tempers and gave Speaker Baleka Mbete a long-lasting headache. It generated a Twitter hashtag, which is a way of saying “You’ve arrived!” in the modern world.

And sadly, its use wasn’t only limited to questioning President Zuma about his failure to repay any of the taxpayers’ money that was used for the upgrades to his private home in Nkandla.

This year, increasingly gatvol South Africans hurled the phrase at, among others, the (now former) chairperson of the SABC board, Ellen Tshabalala; disgraced Independent Electoral Commission chairperson Pansy Tlakula; and even EFF leader Julius Malema, who owes the taxman a few million rands.

A young man was even heard yelling “Pay back the money!” down his cellphone at a Jozi car wash – and then proudly turning to his friends and announcing: “That was my mother.”

We’re good at finding the humour, even amid grim headlines, economic discomfort and political palavers.

But #paybackthemoney isn’t really a laughing matter; it’s the arrogance and entitlement of public figures brought to life in a single, pithy phrase.

Tshabalala and Tlakula racked up hefty legal bills – on their organisations’ accounts, naturally – before quitting.

There’s no indication they will repay this money, or that they were bothered by using public funds for their personal benefit.

Why should they? The precedent has been set from the top.

The president seems no more likely to take Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s recommendation that he pay back a percentage of what was spent on Nkandla than Malema does to swap his red beret for a blue DA T-shirt.

Maybe next year, the hashtag will become #theypaidbackthemoney – but we’re not holding our breath.

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