TO WHAT EXTENT IS SOUTH AFRICAN POLITICS POPULIST?

Charles Simkins | Jun 28, 2016
This is the second part in a two part series of Briefs which focuses on populism in South Africa

In her survey of populism as an electoral strategy in Africa  , Danielle Resnick regards Jacob Zuma’s strategy for re-energizing support for the ANC in 2009 as populist.  Her account is as follows:  His homilies, parables, singing and dancing during campaign rallies amount to political theatre with popular appeal.  He presented himself simultaneously as a liberation hero, a leftist, a traditionalist and an anti-elitist, successfully distancing himself from the failures of the ANC government, blaming them on Mbeki.  For the urban youth, the ANC provided parties in the townships with the distribution of meat and beer accompanied by popular music.  At the same time, he played up his Zulu identity, winning for the ANC a first-time majority of votes in KwaZulu-Natal.
 
What are the circumstances which underpin a populist mobilizing strategy?  Resnick suggests six:
 
1. Democracy: populism requires both political contestation and public participation.
2. A mass of unorganised marginal constituents, whom a charismatic leader can connect with in an unmediated way.
3. Fragmented and co-opted civil society, undermining the capacity for independent organization of interests.
4. A lack of labour-intensive economic growth, accompanied by rapid population growth and urbanization.  In this respect, South Africa is under less pressure than many other African countries.  Population growth and urbanization are relatively slow.  But unemployment is massive.
5. A lack of political parties with programmatic orientations and distinct policy agendas.  Many parties represent a vehicle for one individual’s ambitions and revolve almost entirely around the personality of the leader.
6. An ability to combine mobilization of urban constituencies with appeals to the ascriptive identities of ethnicity, language, race and religion.  The common appeal is to a shared history of real or imagined marginalization.
 
Some of these elements have been present for thirty years.  A fragmented civil society was an implication of segregation and apartheid, and the popular mobilization of the 1980s and early 1990s reinforced divisions between ‘our’ civil society and theirs.  The advent of democracy demobilized civil society to a considerable extent, a fact lamented by many ANC leaders.  In particular, street and ward committees have largely withered on the vine.
 
There has also been a shift away from a relatively high level of programmatic orientation.  Historically, the ANC has represented itself – sometimes accurately – as a modernising force.  The shift has been towards the accumulation of rent and the development of patron-client relationships. Increasingly undermining the integrity of the state, again lamented by some ANC members as a falling away from the moral high ground.  The coming local government elections are increasingly seen as a referendum on President Zuma’s leadership.
 
Unemployment has got worse over the last twenty years and a decline in the differences in average income between population groups has been more than offset by growing inequality within them.  Tribal identities, long rejected by the ANC as divisive, lurk close to the political surface.  
 
If conditions have shifted somewhat to favouring populist mobilization, and the opportunities for it have been taken, then the situation is rendered more complex by the emergence of a populist competitor in the form of the Economic Freedom Fighters.  The EFF regards ‘white monopoly capital’ as its ultimate target, but vows to oppose the ANC if they get in the way of an attack on it.  In its manifesto for the local government election, the EFF promised to revitalise ward-level organization, to be managed by a purer, more exemplary, set of revolutionary activists than it regards the ANC as able to provide.  It promises more democratic, responsive, accountable, and corrupt-free government.  It intends to expropriate and allocate land equitably to all residents of municipalities for residential, recreational, industrial, religious, and agricultural purposes and activities on the principle of ‘use it or lose it’.  It promises direct, rather than contracted, provision of goods and services by the municipality and support for businesses and traders and promotion of local production.  By doing so, it mobilizes discontent at the appropriation of existing rents by a relatively narrow elite, and proposes, in effect, to create new rents for its supporters.
 
The populist themes of popular participation and plebiscitary democracy are present in the EFF’s Founding Manifesto.  Thus Section 84: 
 
It is a crying shame that in the 21st century we are presided over by an elite system of power where only 400 members of the National Assembly govern over 50 million people.  The EFF shall agitate for the transfer of power to the people and make democracy real for the majority.
 
And Section 87:
 
On contentious issues of national interest, such as going to war, the state should design a quicker, more efficient system to use recurrent referenda to gauge public opinion and sentiments on what the country needs to do. 
 
What the EFF has in mind can be compared with ‘popular power’ as it developed in Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela.  ‘Popular power’ was initially distinct from state power, and the basis for an ‘authentic’ participatory democracy transcending representative democracy.  But then a Commission – the Presidential Commission for Popular Power – was charged with ‘strengthening the impulse of popular power within the framework of the participative and protagonistic democracy’, with all of its members at different administrative-political levels appointed by Chavez.  A sort of parliament of the streets, controlled from above, was called into existence to deliberate with the National Assembly, crowding out debate with opposition parties, in a project conceived of as 21st century socialism and given legal form. The result is, as Margarita Lopez Maya points out:
 
There is no universal suffrage, neither direct nor secret, there is no separation between state and society, no decentralization, no pluralism.  The organizations become state-government structures, basically directed from above .
 
 Chavez’s project was financed from oil rents, particularly in the period between 2004 and 2008, and again from 2010 to 2013.  



The disappearance of the oil rent as a result of the current commodity price bust has plunged Venezuela into a massive crisis.  It is a warning to us.  Competitive populism in South Africa risks turning very low growth into economic collapse.  We may well come to stare at each other across bare grocery shelves and ask: “What on earth were we thinking?”
 
 
Charles Simkins
Head of Research
charles@hsf.org.za