EFF leader Julius Malema during a press conference at the Economic Freedom Fighters' headquarters in Braamfontein, Johannesburg on March 8 2018.
Image: ALON SKUY

Russian President Vladimir Putin, the most powerful man on Earth - he's got Donald Trump in his back pocket - was in town this week for the Brics summit while Jacob Zuma, his prized asset, was, to use a delicious Zulu expression, greeting the judge at the High Court in Pietermaritzburg.

It's an extraordinary turn of events. One wonders what the inscrutable Russian made of it all. And, of course, with Zuma in the dock, the nuclear deal is all but dead. Thankfully our wobbly president was able to pluck up enough courage to tell Putin in a nice sort of way the deal was off the table, for now. Which was just sugarcoating the pill. It's off, period. It's not doable. We can't afford it. Time for extravagances is over. Putin has been left to rue his missed chance.

South Africa, even in its perilous state, has what Russia lacks: an independent judiciary able to declare the nuclear deal unlawful, and a democratic system which turfed a sitting president out of office, thus denying Putin the key to our kitty.

In East London, meanwhile, the EFF, the other salad in the Zuma food chain, had a jamboree to celebrate its fifth birthday. As one wag put it, it's five years old - and it shows. It's been an eventful lustrum for the party.

It has shaken conventions and caused society to doubt itself. Its members are entitled to raise a glass or two in celebration. But the jury is out on whether the party or its tactics have a future.

The EFF is a party born of a grievance. Its leader, Julius Malema, has profited handsomely from either side of the Zuma coin - having made his name defending Zuma, then launching his party and sustaining its growth on an anti-Zuma wave.

Its speciality is a tabloid type of politics - brash, boisterous, noisy and in your face. It is not about the finer points of an argument, subtleties or a genuine attempt at finding solutions to intricate problems. The red berets rubbish and vandalise everything. They don't deal in ideas. Insults are their currency. They are good at exploiting our pathologies for political convenience. Now racism, the country's Achilles heel, has been added to their arsenal.

" The red berets rubbish and vandalise everything. They don't deal in ideas. Insults are their currency "

The EFF has also benefited from the public's tendency to suspend its incredulity: because of its distaste for Zuma's excesses, anybody railing against such malfeasance was likely to earn the public's favour. From the time it broke away from the ANC Youth League to its formation, the EFF was the friend that became Zuma's bitterest foe.

We cheered its members on as they broke every parliamentary convention to harass and taunt Zuma. It was OK as long as they got under Zuma's skin. It got so bad that Zuma literally became afraid to set foot in parliament. That inflated the EFF's reputation, and especially Malema's, as he earned the moniker in some circles of leader of the opposition - an undisguised dig at Mmusi Maimane's perceived ineffectual performance at the dais.

The EFF's harassment of Zuma also had the effect of weakening and disorienting the ANC. It lost focus of its legislative mandate as it marshalled all its efforts to protect its beleaguered leader, who, it must be said, was not universally liked by his MPs. Many a reputation has been tainted or ruined defending Zuma's scandals.

The courts, not parliament, are now Zuma's stomping ground, with the real prospect of prison beckoning. And with its more profitable prey now gone, the EFF has pounced upon land expropriation without compensation, unvarnished racism and Tom Moyane, the disgraced suspended SARS commissioner - three issues it hopes will help catapult it ahead in next year's election. Malema has been talking optimistically about forming the next government. He's daydreaming. The EFF will be extremely lucky to come anywhere close to 10% of the vote.

The EFF has punched above its weight on land expropriation. It started the ball rolling and relentlessly ran with it in the face of stiff opposition. It even popularised the phrase. But it was immensely assisted by the ANC's lack of direction on the matter. President Cyril Ramaphosa, having been blindsided by the ANC conference, may initially have thought he could muddle through it.

He's now a convert who thinks he, like a magician, can grab private property without compensation and grow the economy at the same time. He'll squeeze water from a stone. It also remains to be seen how a scheme that targets taking land from one race group while leaving others untouched can pass constitutional muster. The EFF won't be bothered by such details. It doesn't have the responsibility of governing.

But it is the EFF's increasingly racist rhetoric that should be of concern to every South African. It's the sort of bigotry that comes straight out of Hendrik Verwoerd's playbook, and to which, we had hoped, the new dispensation had dealt a fatal blow. The starting point of every liberation movement was to unite the people, in fierce opposition to the National Party dogma of dividing them according to race.

Even the Black Consciousness Movement's aim was to achieve solidarity among the oppressed so that ultimately they could join white people on an equal footing. Malema has rammed a bus through such a sacred tenet in search of cheap votes. His crude racism is an act of desperation which should be rejected with contempt.

The EFF's shameless adoption of Moyane also proves that its pursuit of Zuma was merely a tactic, and never about principle or an aversion to corrupt practices. Moyane was Zuma's trusted lieutenant who destroyed a great institution. Anybody who abets such a character cannot be but a bird of a feather.

Putin is not alone in missing Zuma.


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