Old foes kiss and make up

When traditional foes start making nice towards one another or echoing one another’s opinions, it’s clearly the end of the world as we know it.

Or else it’s a general election year.

Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi and Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema decided this week they had more in common than a tendency towards bellicosity and the word “freedom” in the names of their parties.

They have agreed to bury the hatchet and allow free political activity in the run-up to this year’s elections, oppose bias by the state broadcaster and act against the abuse of state resources by the ANC.

Nothing controversial in any of that. What passed unremarked upon, however and is potentially controversial is the section of the joint statement afterwards that the two had agreed on the issue of land restitution, where “the willing buyer, willing seller” principle had not worked and where a “new approach” was needed.

Malema has always favoured nationalisation of land held by white “thieves” without compensation the droll explanation of the EFF acronym doing the rounds is that it means Everything For Free while the IFP’s position is that the only flaw to the “willing buyer, willing seller” policy is incompetence and corruption in Land Affairs. Buthelezi himself has often warned that nationalisation will lead to Zimbabwean-style famines.

The phrasing of the statement has the hallmarks of typical Malema finesse. It leaves enough wriggle room for the self-styled “commander-in-chief” to claim, while campaigning, that Buthelezi has now fallen in behind the EFF battalion on the issue – something of a coup if it were true – while not actually spelling out any of the bothersome details of the supposed agreement.

In many ways the two are the antithesis of one another. They are the oldest and youngest leaders of political parties; the one is a liberal federalist and the other a confiscatory neo-fascist. Buthelezi preaches racial reconciliation, while Malema delights in taunting minority groups. And finally, while Buthelezi, despite the bitter and bloody battles with the ANC in the nineties, values deference and politeness, Malema is often derogatory or chillingly threatening.

Malema in the past often mocked the IFP leader, including calling him “a factory fault”. Buthelezi, in turn, has described Malema as “an ill-bred brat whose behaviour is … crude by the standards of any culture”. But hey, now they are best pals.

Also finding unexpected common cause this week were DA leader Helen Zille and President Jacob Zuma. They responded in similar vein to Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula, who described Bafana Bafana as “losers” and “useless”.

Zille denounced Mbalula’s “horrific” slur and berated the minister for “humiliating” the team. Compared to Zille’s hyperbole, Zuma was more understated. He said that whatever various (unnamed) people were saying about the team, Bafana had “improved greatly” and deserved the nation’s continued patriotic support.

Poor Mbalula, slapped down by the leader of the opposition and the leader of the country.

Whether its reconciliation between old foes, land restitution or hapless footballers, ’tis the season for opportunistic populism all around.