As South Africa gears up to face what is surely the most depressing election in our young democracy, populism is in the air. Pundits, analysts and commentators, both local and international, warn of the dangers of populism. There can be no doubt that South Africa is the midst of its worst political and economic crisis since the end of apartheid — from six-hour blackouts to the deliberate destruction of our public transport system and the collapse of local government, things appear bleak.
Any country with over 25% unemployment, declining wages, rising inflation and the rising cost of living in the context of mass unemployment is always at the risk of political instability. The hope for social change is dying and, in its place, predatory prophets, micro lenders, gangsters and other low lives and snake oil salesmen prey on the poor and vulnerable.
Given the bleak situation, one would be forgiven for believing that this might be an election dominated by parties championing policies that might restore economic growth and alleviate unemployment. Yet this election has been characterised by the total absence of any policy debate.
However, as public intellectual activist Steven Friedman points out, “there is little connection between the problems facing South Africans and the issues over which the campaign is being fought”.
Empty rhetoric, demagogic posturing and platitudes about ending corruption, getting tough on immigration and creating jobs have replaced anything approaching a coherent agenda for the future.
Although corruption is, of course, a serious issue and is central to our crisis, one is hard-pressed to find a politician who openly supports corruption and the means through which to reduce it. It requires more than “replacing the bad guys” with morally upstanding leaders (who are in short supply), because corruption is a structural problem that cannot be simply solved through “ethical leadership”. And even if we win important battles in the fight against corruption, it won’t necessarily magically restore economic growth or reduce unemployment.
Following the revelations of the damage done to the country during the rule of former president Jacob Zuma, most South Africans have very little trust in government, politicians and political parties. Recent research conducted by the Edelman Trust Barometer found that only 21% of South Africans trust their government — the lowest out of the 26 countries surveyed. Another report by the same organisation found that 62% of South Africans would trade democracy for an unelected leader “who could impose law and order and deliver housing and jobs”.
President Cyril Ramaphosa is the only politician to enjoy a positive trust score among voters, according to a recent Ipsos poll. Big capital is seriously concerned about the future of South Africa with, for instance, Colin Coleman, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs in sub-Saharan Africa believing Ramaphosa is “the last hope for democracy”.
Given the above, the spectre of populism haunts South Africa. For many, the Economic Freedom Fighters encapsulate South African populism — with its heady and often incoherent mix of fiery rhetoric targeting the enemies of the people from the moribund United Democratic Front’s “Indian cabal” and white monopoly capital and calls for the radical redistribution of wealth.
But what if the real danger facing South Africa is an emerging far-right populism that has mass appeal? What if this election marks a shift towards the development of our own Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil or Donald Trump in the United States?
I believe there is a different type of far-right politics emerging in South Africa. This is not a politics of the white minority, whose own right-wing organisations remain relatively marginal. This is a politics that has mass appeal in both the townships and suburbs.
There are signs that this politics is emerging in some of the new political parties that will be fighting this election — in particular the African Transformation Movement (ATM), which is more than a personal vehicle for lost Zuma supporters looking for a new home.
A recent report by Dennis Webster published on the New Frame website highlighted the surprising success of the ATM after it won an unprecedented 30% of the Nyandeni Ward 21 vote (traditionally split between the ANC and the United Democratic Movement). This report brings to light four principal sentiments and/or political forces that form the basis of a new right-wing populism: Evangelical/charismatic churches; xenophobia; traditional leaders and tough-on-crime rhetoric.
The key mobilising force behind the victories of both Trump and Bolsonaro were the vast, rich and organised evangelical blocs. Evangelicals constitute a political bloc and a social movement that can mobilise millions of believers in support of political causes, control a voting bloc in legislatures and have money to burn.
Although the power and size of evangelical churches has been increasing at a rapid pace — more than 25 % of South Africans, including many leading politicians, attend charismatic churches and while they have yet to constitute themselves as a distinct political bloc in South Africa, there are signs that this process has already begun.
The ATM has its roots in the South African Council of Messianic Churches in Christ, a body that includes the Twelve Apostles Church in Christ (Tacc), which claims a membership of nearly seven million. The current chief apostle of the Tacc, Caesar Nongqunga, has said that the main reason for party’s formation is to become “a mouthpiece for the churches and the protector of this nation”.
This is not simply politicians opportunistically drawing on religion, it is a decision that the churches must take a direct proactive role in politics.
One of the few things most South Africans seem to agree on is that foreigners — particularly other Africans — are a problem and must be dealt with in one way or another. Our political leaders compete to highlight their willingness to take on foreigners stealing jobs and spreading crime in South Africa, while the government continues to portray our history of xenophobic pogroms as random acts of criminality, from the Democratic Alliance campaigning to “secure our borders” to smaller parties demanding the expulsion of all foreigners in South Africa.
The ATM is also mobilising against foreigners, with one ATM supporter claiming South Africa’s economic woes are due to a low circulation of cash in township and rural economies stemming from tax avoidance by foreigners and endemic capital flight.
“In rural areas and townships, we used to have spaza shops owned by our fathers or by our brothers or the community. They were feeding their family members. They were taking them to school,” she says. “But now, [in] each and every community, [on] each and every street, even the rural areas, spaza shops are owned by foreigners.”
The increasing power of traditional leaders has been a feature of South African politics for some time now, as historian Peter Delius points out: “Entrenchment of traditional leadership is being done under the cloak of respect for custom. But the system being buttressed relies on apartheid institutions designed to exclude and control black South Africans. The fact that the ANC is persisting with it in the face of myriad protests of rural people (especially women) and repeated representation by grass roots organisations does not suggest that mobilising the rural vote is its primary concern.”
Our history shows that traditional leaders could prove a powerful support base for a populist, right-wing project. The ATM also calls for increasing the power of traditional leaders. This is a potent combination that could attract voters across the political spectrum.
Given the high levels of criminality that plague South African society, the distrust for the police born out of violence, corruption and incompetence and calls to get tough on criminals have widespread appeal. Support for the police to “shoot to kill” to calls to bring back capital punishment are already in the mainstream and could be mobilised by a shrewd political leader or party in an effective fashion. This tough-on-crime message was crucial to Bolsonaro’s electoral victory.
One ATM supporter interviewed by Webster declared that they were looking for a political alternative “that will say something about God or would bring godly values” such as “justice-based” capital punishment. This could prove to be the biggest selling point for this type of politics.
South African exceptionalism leads many to believe that the country is immune from the same disturbing political trends that plague other nations, but already existing authoritarian sentiments and political forces can be mobilised to attract alienated, desperate, angry and weary voters looking for alternatives. Dangerous right-wing and populist trends are already infecting our major political parties. We have seen it happen in Brazil and it can happen here too.
Benjamin Fogel is a PhD candidate in Latin American history at New York University and is a contributing editor for Jacobin magazine and the Africa is a Country website