South Africa’s not that different from Brazil

Jair Bolsonaro is Brazil’s new leader after he took 55.1% of the vote in the second round of the presidential election on Sunday against centrist Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party (PT), who secured 44.9% of the vote.

The leader of the Social Liberal Party (PSL), which it is not got 10-million more votes than Haddad. Out of a voting population of 147-million, 30-million either didn’t vote or “annuled” their vote.

Bolsonaro won on the basis of an anti-PT sentiment. Haddad entered the race with his party tainted by the Petrobas corruption scandal. The investigation, known as Operation Car Wash, revealed that employees of the state-controlled company received bribes from senior businesspeople and politicians. Former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a popular pro-poor leader of the PT, was imprisoned for corruption, which he appealed but lost. He ran his election campaign from jail but then stepped down for Haddad in September — one month before the elections.

In the run-up to the poll Bolsonaro, the “far-right, pro-gun, pro-torture populist”, to quote The Guardian, said he would enact a cleansing of the left, promising that “red bandits” would be imprisoned or banished.

Bolsonaro is a fascist. He’s not merely some vulgar right-wing populist who is all bad jokes and telling it like it is, as some of his supporters claim. Bolsonaro is the embodiment of the most hardline faction of the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil for 21 years, which embraced torture, murder and rape as necessary tools in the fight against communism. Bolsonaro has always been quite open about his contempt for democracy — yet the majority of the Brazilian electorate voted him into power.

In addition to anti-corruption, the anti-PT sentiment has come to stand for anger and hatred (including towards homosexuals). As The Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins puts it: “Bolsonaro has exploited the oldest politics, that of self-interest, and also the newest, that of anger, polarisation and fear, particularly of minorities.” The pro-Bolsonaro voters are fed up with crime and a faltering economy. Paranoid propaganda about the red bandits — despite there being no active communist threat — has been promoted by the mainstream media, fake news groups and the centre-right, who depicted the PT as an evil communist conspiracy.

Bolsonaro’s party (the PSL) has ridden this wave, jumping from irrelevance to become the second-largest party in the country, as an array of scoundrels, including Bolsonaro’s sons, were elected because of their connection to him.

Bolsonaro’s supporters

Bolsonaro’s base is strongest among the upper-middle class, who after traditionally voting for centre-right parties have radicalised en masse in the past few years, and the powerful evangelical bloc with its huge numbers and resources.

Bolsonaro’s support base also includes large numbers of women, black and working-class voters, all of whom stand directly in his crosshairs. This can largely be explained by security concerns, in the context of Brazil’s rising levels of violence driven by organised crime. Large numbers of working-class Brazilians are prepared to support an increase of violence against “criminals” as a solution, or like his support for gun ownership.

But it is worth noting that Bolsonaro’s support is lower in the most violent areas of the country.

Elite backers

Bolsonaro has refused to debate with his opponent, claiming that he belongs in prison. He also only grants interviews with sycophantic journalists. He has flaunted all standards of a normal election; he can get away with this because he has the backing of Brazil’s elite. Big capital is salivating over his pro-market policies and he is openly backed by powerful sections of the armed forces. Bolsonaro’s military allies, far from being a moderating force, are actively supporting many of his most extreme policies.

Brazil’s judiciary also played a key role in Bolsonaro’s election campaign. For instance, Brazil’s electoral court banned a PT campaign video containing testimony from the victims of Brazil’s military dictatorship highlighting Bolsonaro’s unashamed and open support for torture, while allowing Bolsonaro supporters to go around calling Haddad a paedophile.

The court has proved itself unwilling to tackle the illegal campaign financing and fake news key to Bolsonaro’s campaign. Judge Sergio Moro, the protagonist of Operation Car Wash, released damaging testimony from a Da Silva ally in a move that was clearly designed to exact maximum damage on the PT’s electoral prospects. Bolsonaro, in turn, has mooted his name as a possible future Supreme Court pick.

Despite posing as an anti-corruption crusader, Bolsonaro’s campaign has been driven by illegal funds

set up by businesses to fund Whatsapp groups spreading toxic fake news. A survey of popular fake news stories will reveal such gems as the PT giving out “gay kits” to kindergarten kids complete with baby bottles with penis-shaped teats. This would be comical, if large sections of the Brazilian public didn’t believe it and it hadn’t poisoned public discourse.

Brazil, like South Africa, suffers from high levels of violence. But in the past few weeks this violence has begun to take an openly political character. This includes incidents such as a trans woman being murdered by thugs chanting Bolsonaro’s name, a woman having a swastika carved into her neck for wearing an anti-Bolsonaro T-shirt and a capoeira (Brazilian martial art) master being murdered after admitting that he voted for Haddad. The darkest sides of Brazilian society, the violence, racism and misogyny, are being brought into the open as part of Bolsonaro’s campaign.


It is thought Bolsonaro will probably give police and the military carte blanche to kill, in a country where 63 000 people are murdered every year (5 000 by the police). Right-wing paramilitary groups could expand and implement social cleansing in the territories they seize, given state backing in the war against “crime”. Organised crime won’t be destroyed despite Bolsonaro’s promises. Instead, factions tied to the military or consisting of police are likely to benefit.

Brazil’s social movements such as the Landless Workers Movement and the Homeless Workers Movement may be declared terrorist organisations and hunted down by the police or the private militias of landowners, and activists could be either imprisoned or killed with the backing of Brazil’s congress, media and big business. There is a good chance that the PT, which is still Brazil’s largest party, would be criminalised and its leading members join Da Silva in prison after being found guilty of “corruption”.

Foreign policy

Bolsonaro said little about foreign policy during his election campaign, but, from his political stance, key aspects can be gleaned. He would probably pull out of the Paris Accord and move Brazil’s foreign policy towards that of the United States (and Donald Trump). This would mean Brazil breaks with multilateralism, and might include Brazil leaving Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).

Bolsonaro would also probably move Brazil’s Israeli embassy to Jerusalem. There could even be military confrontation with Venezuela and cooling relations with China, Brazil’s main trade partner.


What can we learn from Brazil’s tragedy? The social and economic crisis that has led to the entry of Bolsonaro on to the political stage is not too different from South Africa’s. Inequality, racial segregation, an absence of political leadership, corruption and an increasing disillusionment with politics as a vehicle for meaningful change will all sound familiar to South Africans.

It is by no means a stretch of the imagination to think that, if the state fails to tackle underlying security concerns or offer a meaningful and progressive alternative, large sections of South Africa could embrace openly authoritarian politics. This would probably take the form of a chauvinism mobilised around xenophobia rather than Bolsonaro’s brand of anti-leftism. Politicians frequently call for military intervention in the townships and xenophobia is almost a political consensus among mainstream parties. The warning signs are there, but will anybody heed them?

One hopes that the South African government and civil society will take a strong stand against Bolsonaro, offering solidarity and even perhaps exile to those he will target after taking power.

Benjamin Fogel is doing his PhD in history at New York University and is a contributing editor at Jacobin and the website Africa Is a Country

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Benjamin Fogel
Benjamin Fogel
Currently based in São Paulo, Benjamin Fogel is a PhD candidate in Latin American history at New York University and is a contributing editor for Jacobin magazine and website Africa is a Country

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