EFF leader Julius Malema and his deputy Floyd Shivambu. Picture: EPA
EFF leader Julius Malema and his deputy Floyd Shivambu. Picture: EPA

It’s been a difficult week to be a South African. It’s not just the toxic politics and incoherent ramblings of ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule on quantitative easing. The 3.2% drop in GDP growth was a particularly bitter pill to swallow, because it felt like punishment for those who dared be swept up in Ramaphoria, and the talk of growth topping 2% this year.

But this was always going to be an incremental war, fought in the trenches, recovering a country almost stolen, metre by metre.

In this paradigm, there were two significant victories this week. The first was the continued winnowing of the deadbeats who plagued our politics for the past decade.

Bathabile Dlamini was far more than just the minister who nearly torpedoed the lives of 17-million people by almost running the social welfare system aground in 2017; she was a symbol of the notion that capacity to deliver was distinctly secondary to political patronage. Former president Jacob Zuma gave Dlamini a cabinet post just because she headed the ANC Women’s League — nothing more.

And now she is gone. Gone from the cabinet, and as of this week, gone from parliament. In her self-pitying resignation letter, Dlamini bemoaned "those among us that have the support of the media, that they mastered the art of demonising some of us". There was no mention of the Constitutional Court’s finding that she was "grossly negligent" and that her court evidence was false.

But the second gain for SA’s splintering democracy was to be found in two court rulings against Julius Malema’s EFF, taking it to task for saying whatever it wanted, no matter how untrue. In a fragile and fractious country, vulnerable to demagogues willing to say anything and invulnerable to evidence, the rulings were a cathartic check.

First, former finance minister Trevor Manuel hauled the EFF to court for saying that, as chair of the SA Revenue Service panel that picked Edward Kieswetter to be the new tax commissioner, his decision was guided by nepotism. The EFF had said Manuel’s panel favoured Kieswetter because he was "not just a relative of Trevor Manuel, but a close business associate and companion".

Judge Elias Matojane, careful to tread that fine line between freedom of speech and defamation, ruled that the EFF must apologise to Manuel, retract what it said, and pay R500,000 in damages. "They published the tweet with reckless indifference as to whether it was true or false. The statement remains published online despite it being subsequently shown to be false," he said. There is no justification for publishing intentional lies, said the judge — even on social media.

Days later, a high court ruled against the EFF again. Judge Fiona Dippenaar ruled that the EFF had broken the electoral code by failing to "take any steps to stop or stem the tide of abuse and intimidation" directed at journalist Karima Brown. The threats came after Malema published Brown’s cellphone number on Twitter, accusing her of being "an ANC operative and mole".

The ruling was just a small check on the EFF’s guerilla-style disinformation and intimidation tactics, but it’s something.

In a country that has at times felt like the Wild West, where anyone can say anything, no matter how untrue or toxic, it’s a welcome respite. The truth cannot be relative, hostage to whoever shouts the loudest. This reinforcement is especially vital at a time when one faction in the ANC is pushing to change the Reserve Bank’s mandate, on the basis of patently false arguments. It may start with Malema trashing an opponent, but if the facts get away from us now, the entire political fabric becomes quicksand.