Brazil: A lesson for SA


The backslide of Brazil’s Workers Party, once one of the most admired left-of centre parties in the developing world, into corruption, mismanagement and cronyism, have unleashed a backlash which lifted far right populist leader Jair Bolsonaro into the country’s presidency.

Bolsonaro’s election is a warning to South Africa and the ANC about how a party elected, in the case of the Workers Party, with massive popular expectations by the impoverish masses, and then descent into corruption, mismanagement and arrogance, could disappoint its supporters so much, they will seek answers in populism.

The Workers Party came to power to build democracy and boost development, at the same as implementation redistribution to the previously disadvantaged. Brazil’s last survey results showed that blacks have now for the first time outnumbered white Brazilians.

Following the disappointment of the Workers Party many Brazilians left out of the golden growth years are increasingly blaming democracy for the previous government’s failures, rather than leaders or the former governing party.

Many hardpressed Brazilians had begun to belief – wrongly off course, that the era of military rule was allegedly “better” and similar ways that many people are whispering that apartheid was allegedly better because crime was supposedly contained, and because blacks were not in power then, black society were more egalitarian, kinder and more rules-based.

Workers Party Leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva became Brazil president in 2003. The Workers Party during its first years brought high growth, welfare programmes and strengthen democracy.

However, economic crises – inflicted by both policies in industrial nations, such as tighter US monetary policy, which causes financial outflows out of emerging markets and currency instability; as well as self-inflicted ones, a drought, rising corruption and rising debt because of the construction projects associated with the hosting the 2014 FIFA Football World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, brought disenchantment.

Lula was supposed to be the Workers Party’s presidential candidate, but having been convicted of corruption, and serving a 12-year jail sentence, was replaced by Fernando Haddad. Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff was impeached after she was accused of manipulating the national budget.

Bolsonaro based his campaign was a populist mix of neoliberal economics and conservative social values. He attacked abortion, feminism and gay rights. Bolsonaro, a staunch Roman Catholic, allied himself with Brazil’s churches, using the slogan of “Brazil above everything, God above all”.

His campaign promised to be tough on crime. He claimed the spiralling crime in Brazil’s poor neighbours is because criminals have allegedly far too much human rights. He has vowed to bring “law and order”, “responsibility” for actions and following “rules” back to Brazil, where in some places ganglords run communities, the rule of law had broken down completely in a “everything goes” culture and corruption has spiralled out of control.

He aims to give the police powers to shoot to kill suspected criminals. He has pledged to lower the age of criminal responsibility to 16 years old.

Under Lula and Rousseff, Brazil became one of the emerging powers whose investments in Africa helped Africa’s longest continuous growth rally since independence from colonialism. Brazil pursued trade “South-South” trade, seeking alternative trade partners to Western countries, increasing its trading with African and developing countries.

Lula and Rousseff as presidents dramatically increased Brazilian trade, investment and political partnerships with Africa. Brazil was also a partner to Africa and developing countries pushing for fairer global institutions, trade rules and global company investment behaviour, which is often skewed against Africa and developing countries in favour of industrial countries.

It is very likely that Brazil will now disengage with developing countries and Africa. It is also very likely that Brazil will pursue a Brazil first strategy under Bolsonaro. Under Bolsonaro it is likely to pursue a bilateral foreign policy strategy, striking deals with individual countries on a case-by-case. This means that Brazil may disengage with Africa, Latin America and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa.

Within BRICS, Brazil, with South Africa and India, pushed not only for equitable global institutions, trade rules and investment flows, but also democracy at global and country level. Brazil’s turn to rightwing populism will weaken the democratic lobby within BRICS and strengthen its more autocratic ones.

The lesson for South Africa is that state-led redistribution strategies, infrastructure and industrial policy must be pursued honestly at all times, because these strategies, although good and necessary in countries such as South Africa and Brazil with their legacies of historical injustices, are highly susceptible to capture by party elites, corrupt business and criminals.

Corruption deprive societies of public services, safety and their health. It collapses democracies, allows the most corrupt, violent and morally repugnant to control communities, and ignite ethnic, communal and racial violence. It has to be publicly and visibly tackled at the highest, most powerful and untouchable level. Prosecuting only so-called “small fry” or “enemies” will cause even more public resentment.

In highly unequal societies, corruption allows gangsters, mafias, whether traditional, political or business leaders, to hold enormous power, over the lives of honest, hardworking, but powerless ordinary citizens. At some these ordinary citizens who want to make an honest living in safe neighbourhoods, without fear of violent and corrupt gangsters, police and local public servants, and with reasonably working public services, to say enough is enough and seek answers in politicians like Bolsonaro. A few years ago, Bolsonaro was virtually unknown.

Now, Bolsonaro is the president of Brazil, having whipped up popular mass grievances against corruption, crime and failing public services, to secure election. It is increasingly very possible, that a demagogue can rise in South Africa, appealing directly at the masses, surging popular anger against corruption, crime and poor public services to rise to power, by calling for the death penalty back for crime, for foreigners to be send away and for key democratic principles to be set aside on the basis of bringing back the law, rules and order.

William Gumede is Chairman, Democracy Works Foundation (; and author of South Africa in BRICS (Tafelberg).