In a populist vice-grip

The post-Polokwane national leadership vacuum, widespread internal ANC divisions and state weakness created the conditions for the recent populist and ethno-nationalist mobilisation against foreign scapegoats.

As with most forms of nationalist mobilisation, this has been highly gendered with men armed with pangas and sticks taking to the streets to violently purge neighbourhoods of “strangers”.

The seeds of this chauvinistic brand of populism were abundantly evident in the macabre chants of “burn the bitch” that were directed at the rape accuser by Jacob Zuma’s supporters outside the courtroom during his rape trial.

This populism was also evident during the mass mobilisation in the build-up to the Polokwane conference and again outside court this week as the ruling party built a wall of solidarity around Zuma.

These developments have been strengthened by daily claims of political conspiracies against Zuma and relentless attacks on “liberals” and “counter-revolutionaries” within liberal democratic institutions such as the Constitutional Court and the Human Rights Commission. Public declarations by the ANC Youth League president to kill and die for Zuma merely reaffirm and buttress this brand of ethno-nationalist populism.

While African non-nationals have been killed and displaced from the townships, Julius Malema, Zwelinzima Vavi, Blade Nzimande and their lieutenants remain fixated on attacking the judiciary in the name of “the Great Leader”. This “cult of the personality” emerging around Jacob Zuma is a dangerous symptom of these rapidly escalating populist politics.

This is taking place in a context of widespread grievances about service delivery failure and the rising costs of food, fuel and electricity. In the absence of a functional state and a strong political leadership, rampant populism has been able to infiltrate the entire body politic. Rather than simply attributing the recent xenophobic violence to the third force or criminal elements, it is necessary to acknowledge a diversity of triggers and catalysts, including the role of the state and the ruling party.

What we do know from the recent violence against foreigners is that we can no longer take for granted that the new ANC leadership and ordinary citizens living in increasingly harsh conditions of unemployment and poverty necessarily subscribe to the democratic ideals of South Africa’s progressive Constitution. In fact, a political discourse is emerging in which these democratic institutions are increasingly represented by the new ANC leadership as white, liberal and counter-revolutionary.

The poor response of the new ANC leadership to the tragic consequences of the recent violence against non-nationals has also highlighted the degree to which ANC priorities are being diverted by power plays, political circuses and patronage possibilities anticipated should Zuma become the next president. The ANC has become fixated on the figure of the “Great Leader” and this has contributed towards letting the populist genie out of the bottle in ways that even Zuma seems unable and unwilling to domesticate.

Writing about the recent establishment of an all-European border police to prevent the influx of immigrants into the EU, the sociologist Slavoj Zizek noted: “The real solution is to tear down the true wall, not the police one, but the socio-economic one: to change society so that people will no longer desperately try to escape their own world.” Taking Zizek’s call to heart would also require the new ANC leadership to take more responsibility for addressing the growing socio-economic inequalities within its borders as well as the ongoing political and economic meltdown in Zimbabwe. Meanwhile, the Great Leader and his faithful followers merely sing and dance to the nostalgic tune of Umshini Wam.

Steven Robins is a professor in the department of sociology and social anthropology at Stellenbosch University

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