Who really is the Son of the Soil?

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Get out of my Parliament! Security personnel (in white) remove EFF MPs from Parliament in Cape Town during the State of the Nation Address on February 09, 2017. The EFF members fought back with violence and insults after disrupting proceedings for nearly an hour during former president Jacob Zuma’s address. (photo Esa Alexander)

AN ALIEN from Mars landing in Johannesburg would see many smiling posters from political parties fixed to street poles, and think everyone is so polite, despite the tough battle going on for peoples’ votes in the upcoming election.

Everywhere, you see bakkies with enthusiastic youngsters jumping out to affix posters of Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema, in his characteristic red beret, smiling amiably, with the words ‘Son of the Soil’. The message: If this honest young man found a million dollars on the street, he would search for the owner, and not keep a cent. The country would be safe in his hands.

However, any follower of South African politics knows his other face: He is feared for his aggressiveness and regarded as a potential fascist; he and his unruly comrades have been thrown out of parliament for disruptions, been accused of assaulting a journalist, fired live rounds illegally at the EFF’s anniversary, and constantly used derogatory anti-white racial language. Nervous whites say the country is doomed if he gets significant power.

In his posters Malema does what all politicians do: project a positive image of himself and a negative one of his opponents. An old adage says the most successful political leader is not the most honest one, but the best liar, who can convince millions to follow him. Honest politicians get relegated to the sidelines. History is littered with dishonest leaders sending thousands of soldiers into futile battles.

In the internet era, it’s not just physical posters on street poles that manipulate potential voters; Twitter and Facebook are ideal. At the highest level, US President Donald Trump unashamedly uses Twitter like a street poster to broadcast positive or negative messages. Other international politicians do the same, regardless of their positions, such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On Monday – a week before the Israeli elections – Ynet in Tel Aviv reported on a synchronized system of Facebook and Twitter accounts that has been discovered by internet watchdog, the Big Bots Project, employed for the purpose of praising Netanyahu and discrediting his opponents. Netanyahu denied involvement in it.

In South Africa, digital placards are less used because the population is less internet-savvy. But in the more prosaic, physical poster-war on street poles in Johannesburg, dreary-looking images of African National Congress leader, President Cyril Ramaphosa, call out: “Let’s grow South Africa together!” The message: We are the hundred-year old ANC, the older sons of the soil, who destroyed apartheid and will lead South Africa to prosperity. For the election, the ANC is relying on the notion that even if it is stained by corruption today, most South Africans will vote for it, believing it is not the ANC that is corrupt, but certain individuals, who will be rooted out.

In other places, posters of others parties dominate, such as the Democratic Alliance and Freedom Front Plus. Amongst minorities, the Jewish vote is so small as to be almost irrelevant.

Everyone knows Ramaphosa’s hold on power is precarious, because the old guard of former president Jacob Zuma’s supporters are waiting to stab him in the back. The reassurances his posters are meant to convey are tenuous. Malema’s posters are slightly more effective: The man is actually in charge of his party. If the EFF was not racist, some whites might even vote for it.

All things considered, it might be best for the country if the tired ANC collapsed and was rebuilt from scratch without the rogues who ruined it. Is this possible? For a start, South African voters would have to put their votes elsewhere to convey the message.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za 

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