Do we really want to be like Venezuela?

Populism always ends in tears. But by rallying “the people” against an undifferentiated other it can feed off primal instincts and raise political leaders to a status of great wealth and power, without accountability.

So when former minister of public enterprises, Barbara Hogan, expressed fears about rising “authoritarian populism” in the ANC alliance, she attracted attention.

The ANC Youth League under Julius Malema has earmarked Venezuela and its president, Hugo Chávez, the leading proponent of populism, among its role models for the future of South Africa.

There is much in Malema’s rhetoric around the will of the people and white “theft” of land to remind us of key elements of populist ideology. And because Malema is usually a mouthpiece for other powerful factions in the ANC, such fears have some merit.

Populism differs in detail from country to country but has at its core certain common emphases. Firstly, it calls for a radical redistribution of resources to “the people”.

It is the ­politics of the crowd, mobilised with emotive rhetoric to intimidate adversaries. Secondly, it champions a charismatic leader who epitomises the “will of the people” and leads the movement. Thirdly, it venerates the state as omniscient, omnipotent and always benevolent, and fourthly, it needs a hated “other” to thrive—whether George Bush or globalisation—and it often calls on a mythically glorious history to obscure its contradictions.

This heroic narrative enables the populist leader and his followers to justify the long-term pain that the short-term gain of this political philosophy inflicts on the very people it was supposed to benefit.

It is aggressively working class in tone and contemptuous of the market and orthodox fiscal and monetary disciplines. It also assumes a single national identity and a single will of the people, embodied in the leadership. Therefore, any criticism and opposition is regarded as morally depraved and all means to eradicate it are justified as rooting out unpatriotic elements.

Venezuela is instructive in this regard. Despite the country being a petrostate in an era of high energy prices, Chávez’s interventions have not led to higher levels of economic growth—although they have succeeded in lifting many urban people out of absolute ­poverty through social grants.

Populism thrives on dependency, but there is a cost. Venezuela now has an inflation rate of 30%, which is still rising; its oil production under state control has declined by a third; foreign investment has gone; the ­currency has devalued considerably and the economy has contracted nearly 6% in the past two years.

In real terms wages are now lower than they were before Chávez’s rise to power, crime rates are at record highs, the new elites are as corrupt as the old, the judiciary has been thoroughly co-opted using political appointees and the free press is under heavy assault. The president has not infrequently resorted to bypassing multiparty democratic institutions through rule by decree.

Populism may seem democratic in rhetoric, but it is profoundly undemocratic in effect. The concept of a single people’s will or an uncritical national consensus is profoundly illiberal, in the true sense of the world.

Populism comes in both left and right-wing forms and it emerges from a common set of events, some of which can be discerned in recent South African politics:

  • Prolonged economic recession and substantial unemployment;

  • A demand for a state-led stimulus that plays down the inflationary dangers of deficit financing and the injections of excessive moneys into the economy;

  • High inequalities in society;

  • Political parties and civil societies that are weak;

  • Pressure for a rapid redistribution of wealth

  • A dependent, politicised civil service;

  • A politicised and assertive army; and

  • High levels of popular anger about corruption.

But although all these tendencies can be found in our contemporary debate, South Africa is not Venezuela. It also does not have the usual populist state apparatus of a strongly politicised army—unlike Zimbabwe.

But the troubling rhetoric of populism is loud enough for Hogan to hear and elements of it are seductive to the new elite who would gain from direct personal self-enrichment dressed up as the will of the people via charismatic interlocutors.

Whereas populist tendencies, however inchoate, were suppressed during the Thabo Mbeki era, they have emerged vociferously after his Polokwane dethroning, alongside the better-known nationalist and socialist wings of the party, but with a much greater emphasis on the materialistic aspect of things, which is reflected in the behaviour of the bling elites.

The language of populism is ­antithetic to multiparty democracy and a rights-based culture, and it is uniformly economically catastrophic in outcome.

The Constitution is our fortification against dictatorship and economic collapse, but we must not be naive about the state. It is not some inherently benevolent entity that exists in its own right. It exists only as the manifestation and servant of the freely expressed will of its citizens, expressed through a free and fair vote, monitored by a free press and buttressed through institutions independent of the state. Hogan was right to sound the alarm bells. They toll for all of us.

Lewis is the Democratic Alliance spokesperson on economic development in the Gauteng provincial legislature

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