SA could learn from Brazil when it comes to protests

The 2010 and 2014 Fifa World Cups in South Africa and Brazil were fanfares to fading visions. Their emptied, debt-burdened stadiums are now monumental symbols of hollowed-out hopes. It seems a distant past when South Africa and Brazil heralded global admiration.

In 1994, Nelson Mandela offered South Africa the promise of a multiracial and egalitarian democracy. In 2002 Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known as Lula) was elected on a wave of elation leading his Workers’ Party to power and promising a renewal of left-wing politics in Brazil.

Now both Brazil and South Africa are struggling under inept, scandal-plagued and self-serving leaders in Michel Temer and Jacob Zuma, respectively. The two countries remain two of the world’s most economically and racially unequal societies, sexual violence is pervasive, land reform is stagnating, and police and criminal violence is frequent.

Both countries, along with Russia, India and China, are part of the flimsy financial and political edifice of Brics.

The recent calls by the opposition in South Africa to remove Zuma have prompted misleading analogies to last year’s impeachment of Workers’ Party president Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s successor. Brazil has direct presidential elections; South Africa does not. But in some ways Brazil’s recent history mirrors South Africa’s.

The election of Lula in 2002 was the first time a popular working-class leader had won the presidency in Brazil since the end of the military dictatorship in 1985. The Workers’ Party had built, over decades, a broad-based alliance of unions, including those of landless rural workers. The government of Lula presided over strong economic growth and the huge expansion of state welfare.

This included the cash-grant Bolsa Familia programme, an increased minimum monthly wage, housing subsidies, improved labour rights and more inclusive free tertiary education.

Yet, in order to govern, the Workers’ Party forged alliances with business leaders and the opposition, often paying them off to push their agendas in Brazil’s unwieldy Parliament and Senate, in which multiple parties hold seats. The strategy entrenched corruption and patronage.

The success of the Workers’ Party relied heavily on the commodity supercycle of the first decade of the millennium, and began to unravel when the commodity boom slowed and recession began. Unions fragmented, the number of unionised workers declined and there was a loss of leadership when community organisers took state positions.

Rousseff, a former Marxist guerrilla imprisoned and tortured during the military dictatorship, was elected president in 2010. But she found herself pushed to the right and also dependent on coalitions to rule, along with coming under increasing attack from the left.

There were mass protests in Brazil in the lead-up to the Fifa World Cup in 2014, partly against the billions spent on the tournament but also in protest against rising transport and living costs amid dissatisfaction with a corrupt political class.

On the streets were members of Brazil’s elite along with youth from the country’s favelas. But this cross-class protest veiled interests that were fundamentally at odds.

In the wake of the wounding World Cup, Rousseff was re-elected through a precarious alliance with Temer of the opposition Brazilian Democratic Movement Party as her deputy.

Protests continued, but the cross-class alliance dissipated. Although the middle classes continued to protest against Rousseff, a new movement of high school students — occupying schools in São Paulo in opposition to the closure of state schools — developed into a national movement.

At the same time, Operation Car Wash, overseen by the supreme court, was investigating a vast network of politicians from different parties for an array of corruption scandals, particularly linked to the state-owned oil company Petrobras.

After her election a plot to impeach Rousseff took hold, supported by right-wing politicians that included supporters of the military dictatorship and those with a strongly evangelical agenda.

An impeachment trial started in 2016. The charges were relatively minor, particularly in the context of the corruption investigations; they amounted to fiscal “pedalling” or delaying the repayment of a loan from a state bank to bolster government finances, something that had been standard practice for previous administrations.

Rousseff was finally impeached in August last year. The impeachment was widely seen by her supporters and many of her critics on the left as a coup. Temer was installed as the new president.

Subsequent to the impeachment, the left and social movements have attempted to regroup against Temer’s government through a nationwide movement involving occupations of schools, universities and government buildings — but are on the defensive.

Recorded conversations by Temer’s allies and comments by Temer himself have made it clear that Rousseff’s removal was motivated by an attempt to forestall corruption charges and to impose a right-wing economic agenda.

The politician who led the attempt to impeach her, Eduardo Cunha, was recently convicted of bribery and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Temer is under investigation for funding irregularities and several of his Cabinet have been forced to resign. Rousseff has never been accused of corruption, though Lula is facing an investigation.

Temer’s government has nonetheless begun an assault on the poor and the judiciary. This year, with the support of Parliament and the Senate, it instituted a constitutional amendment called PEC 55 that involves freezing the expansion of social spending for 20 years. The United Nations made the unprecedented move of condemning the legislation as a breach of human rights.

When the supreme court’s Judge Teori Zavascki, who oversaw Operation Car Wash, died last year in a plane crash, Temer appointed his minister of justice, Alexandre de Moraes, to replace him. De Moraes was Cunha’s lawyer and, days before his appointment, he dined with senators on a luxury “love boat”.

The selection makes a farce of judicial independence and compromises corruption investigations against De Moraes’ political allies.

Brazil faces many of the same challenges as South Africa, but it also offers a cautionary tale for an alliance politics based on anti-Zuma sentiment, compromised as his leadership is, regardless of ideology.

The scenes in recent weeks of thousands from different opposition parties in the streets calling for the removal of Zuma can be viewed as a sign of South Africa’s still vital democracy.

But as Benjamin Fogel and Sean Jacobs noted in The Guardian recently, Zuma’s “resignation also won’t prove to be the panacea for South Africa’s maladies without a credible alternative vision”.

Brazil reveals how mass movements for political change and against corruption — like those preceding Rousseff’s impeachment — without a coherent vision and with superficial cross-class and cross-party alliances, can morph into a regressive and anti-poor politics.

The ideologically incoherent alliance of the Economic Freedom Fighters and the Democratic Alliance — the one promoting the nationalisation of industry and land, the other a better governed, business-friendly democracy — is a case in point.

The DA-led government of Johannesburg — gifted to the party by the EFF as kingmaker, with mayor Herman Mashaba’s rhetoric against migrants and human rights lawyers — shows how such expediency can usher in a turn to the right.

This is not an argument for the status quo. South Africa and Brazil both demonstrate the dangers of popular movements stagnating with state power and becoming reliant on patronage networks.

The South African judiciary and Constitutional Court have, in contrast to Brazil, remained robust and independent of presidential interference, but social change cannot only be litigated.

The recent grants scandal in South Africa has shown that mitigating present levels of inequality through welfare support is, while necessary, extremely precarious.

But South Africa and Brazil have long histories of a popular organisation under adverse conditions and these remain critical to responding to the present malaise, although they require reinvigoration. Experiments with new ways of social organisation, of occupation, production and protest remain critical for the revitalisation of an egalitarian political project, which extends far beyond the contest over the presidency.

The carnival is over. The work continues.

Adriana Miranda da Cunha is a PhD candidate at the State University of Santa Catarina, Brazil. Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon is a writing fellow on the Migration and Health Project Southern Africa, based at the African Centre for Migration & Society at the University of the Witwatersrand. These are their own views

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Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon
Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon is a lecturer in anthropology at the University of the Witwatersrand and a research associate of the Migration and Health Project Southern Africa.

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