EFF leader Julius Malema.
EFF leader Julius Malema.

There’s an argument to be made that EFF leader Julius Malema is a worse threat to our democracy than the DA’s Helen Zille. At least Zille is only threatening to destroy the DA, pretty much the only opposition party that could provide an alternative to the unbridled corruption and self-serving incompetence that is much of the ANC governing apparatus. And it’s possible that, before she turns the DA from dunce cap into a cheap megaphone for the reactionary remoras she has chosen to swim with, someone will save the party’s credibility.

But Malema actually advocates hatred and violence against people.

If you’re a regular reader of my weekly analysis, you’ll recognise that the first line of this column is identical to last week’s, save for the transposition of the names Zille and Malema. And that’s because we have such a rich surfeit of candidates for the "Threat to Democracy" title.

In truth, I could start next week’s column by saying: "There’s an argument to be made that David Mabuza/Busisiwe Mkhwebane is a worse threat to our democracy than X."

We are beset on all sides by politicians and civil servants whose desire for self-preservation — of person, party faction or pay cheque — far outstrips their commitment to the larger democratic project.

But what happens when our democracy is broken? And by broken, I mean when all the checks and balances have been captured or compromised, and when our political parties are all campaigning on tickets that are less about fixing the economy and more about fighting the enemy.

We can already see how the main parties are setting up the enemies they’re going to be deriving hate-driven votes from.

With the EFF, in the person of Malema, it’s pretty easy to identify. Take his speech to the recent EFF rally in Mamusa municipality. (I’m going by the EFF’s own official transcript on Twitter.)

First comes the demonisation of the other on the basis of race, and the definition of the "us" in that "us vs them" equation beloved of all populist politicians.

"As black people, we kill Nigerians, accusing them of selling drugs, and we kill Zimbabweans, accusing them of stealing our jobs. Yet, the white man committed a genocide against us, took land, raped our mothers … killed our child in Coligny for picking up a sunflower, they kill our people, saying that [they mistook] them for baboons. You’re even afraid to collapse the statues of white people. Why? Because you hate yourself."

It reads as if Malema is suggesting that, now that you’ve practised on Nigerians and Zimbabweans, it’s time to take on the whites.

Politicians are trying to turn us into believers — and the very last thing you want to do is put your faith in politicians

A less sensationalist analysis would be that Malema is, as is his merry wont, setting up an opposition between all black people and all white people.

Part of the emotional appeal of this is the clear and recurring call to identify by race: "As black people … you hate yourself."

This is where the mantra of what Zille calls "nonracialisation" plays into Malema’s hands. If you’re going to deny the very particular history suffered by black people in a quixotic (at best) attempt to level the disadvantaged playing field, you’re driving South Africans to identify by race as the only way of redressing the past. This is why #notallwhites is as blinkered as #notallmen, and why the DA’s ridiculous call for liberalist nonracialism is so destructive of our democratic project — and such meat and drink to the ANC and the EFF.

The EFF, of course, is also setting up South Africans of Indian descent as the other, in large part because of its attempts to destroy public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan and his endeavour to roll back state capture.

One component of Malema’s propaganda is to highlight how the poor will suffer if state-owned enterprises, those cash cows for the corrupt to feed off, are privatised.

"Imagine what will become of us when there is no SAA subsidised by government?" he says. "As black people we will never be able to fly … They want to privatise Eskom, and by so doing poor families will never afford electricity."

For the DA, taking power means fixing Eskom. For the EFF, power is much more personal, and not unconsciously assumed privilege: "We must never accept less. We must have self-respect. It is only you [who] can stop the nonsense of the ANC, you are the solution to the problem. Stop blaming politicians and start taking responsibility; if you stop voting for the ANC you’re taking back your power."

Nobody has ever accused the EFF of having a coherent plan for SA’s economy, and even the party’s own supporters must question some of its goals. "We want to double the social grants of the elderly and the social grants of children. We want to be like [late Libyan leader Muammar] Gaddafi; who would gift newly wedded couples with land. We also want to gift you with land." (In response, someone on Twitter wrote: "It’s important to Google the ending before one says ‘I want to be like …’")

As refreshing as it is to have a political party crazy enough to want to get involved with its citizens’ weddings, and as irresistible as it is to lampoon Malema’s more outrageous statements, what he’s offering here is pretty much what the ANC promised all those years ago — and what it has conspicuously failed to follow through on.

The DA’s constructed enemies post-Jacob Zuma, sadly for the party, are less easy to market to a mass audience. There’s the crass populism of the EFF — though if the most recent elections are a bellwether, that only appeals to a niche market, and "niche" is not the word you want to hear if you’re a political party.

Of course, the DA also has the demons it shares with the EFF. There’s the ANC, the gift that keeps on taking. And there’s that enemy beloved of despots, dictators and Donalds everywhere (excuse some redundancy in that sentence): the media.

what it means:

What happens when our political parties campaign on tickets that are less about fixing the economy and more about fighting the enemy?

The job of investigative and political journalists is to cut through the average lies, obfuscation and spin that characterise the average politician’s engagement with citizens. It’s also to do the hard work — and it is hard, expensive work — of exposing the layers of corruption and patronage that make up the engine driving most parties.

The trick for the political parties is to fool their followers into believing that — by dint of being a supporter of the party — they’re also a target.

To return to the question I posed earlier: what happens when political parties succeed in breaking our democracy?

One of the possible outcomes is that our political and social framework is reduced to some sort of awful, divisive faith-based system, where we believe in individuals as leaders because they’re feeding us the empty calories of sound bites, and we choose to ignore the more difficult-to-comprehend policies of parties.

Writer Richard Poplak puts it best in reaction to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s statement that he is "turning to prayer" to help solve the country’s problems: "The next decade is about SA’s governing elite transforming a horrifically botched social democracy into a theocracy. (The first clue: prayer begins to replace policy as a tool for ‘solving’ problems.)"

He’s talking about actual religions, but you can see this framework at work in the current ideologies espoused by the large political parties. Politicians are trying to turn us into believers — and the very last thing you want to do is put your faith in politicians.

This is not to say we shouldn’t make our choice at the ballot box, but rather that we should choose based on what the party can accomplish for all our citizens, not what it can do to destroy some shared enemy.