The dangers of populism in South Africa’s elections

File photo: Mark Wessels

South Africa only has to look to Brazil –  the fourth largest democracy in the world – to see how the politics of populism gave rise to one of the most far right governments Brazilians have ever elected. The factors that left the Brazilian electorate disillusioned with establishment politics are some of the very same issues of concern to South Africans this election: corruption, crime, economic stagnation, and unemployment. Our biggest challenge as a country is to start effectively tackling these challenges while avoiding the wave of populism which is sweeping the globe, that plays on peoples’ fears and anger, but does little to provide solutions to the very real issues that vex ordinary people.

If one looks at the situation on the ground in Brazil prior to President Jair Bolsonaro’s election juggernaut, it is a situation not that dissimilar to our own, and therein lies very important lessons for both our politicians and our people. Brazilians were fed up with skyrocketing crime rates – some of the highest in the world. In 2017 there were 61,619 homicides, or 170 killings a day in Brazil. Even though Brazil has three times the homicide rate of that in South Africa, the violent nature of murders in South Africa has left the populace reeling. Between April 2017 and March 2018 there were 20,336 murders in South Africa, or 57 a day. The lower homicide rate compared to Brazil is little consolation when the vast majority of South Africans no longer feel safe in their own homes.

Perhaps the most potent issue for Brazilians that helped to propel Bolsonaro to power was that of corruption, which had spun out of control, infecting every sector of society like a cancer. According to Transparency International’s corruption index in 2018, Brazil ranked 105 out of 180 countries. Again South Africa’s ranking is not as low in comparison, coming in at 73 out of 180 countries. But what is inescapable is South Africa’s dramatic rise in corruption considering that in 1996 during the Mandela era we ranked 23, but by 2018 we had gone down to 73. It is the rapid  increase in corruption, particularly in our parastatals and within government departments over the past decade that has South Africans almost as angry as their Brazilian compatriots.

The recent revelations coming out of the Zondo Commission, the Intelligence Review Panel Report, and the affidavit of the former State Security Agent who revealed the alleged dramatic web of corruption surrounding those that were supposed to lead us, has lifted the lid on state capture unlike anything South Africans have seen since 1994. The yearning for a new dawn has never been more palpable than at this juncture in our post-apartheid history.

The good news is that the rot is finally being revealed and the electorate have high expectations that the guilty will be prosecuted in a timely manner. The pressure on the new NPA Head Shamila Batohi to deliver on that much needed justice is overwhelming. It will determine the future trajectory of this country and how we heal and recover from this period in our history, or whether we let it become our downfall.

The other comparison which is worth drawing with Brazil are the levels of unemployment in our respective countries. In Brazil the most recent figures put the unemployment rate at 12%.The unemployment rate was considered one of the most negative results of former President Michel Temer’s presidency. The fact that Bolsonaro promised to deliver 10 million new jobs in four years won him a lot of support among the poor, given that four out of 10 Brazilians work in informal jobs with no benefits or protection. But the danger in such promises is that they are unrealistic unless they are accompanied by significant economic growth. Growth projections are not looking that promising in Brazil given that for 2018 the Brazilian economy grew at a mere 1.1%.

In South Africa our official unemployment rate is far higher than that in Brazil, which at the end of 2018 stood at 27.5%, more than double that of Brazil. We also cannot hope to make a significant dent in our unemployment figures without significant growth, and our economic growth for 2018 was just 0.8%. What that means is that both Brazil and South Africa found themselves in an economic recession last year, which caused a huge amount of resentment among those at the bottom end of the social spectrum, and much of their anger has been directed at political elites.

It would be foolhardy not to see that conditions in South Africa are fertile ground for populism to take root. The groundswell of right wing populism has taken hold in so many other countries around the world where the working and middle classes have rejected traditional established parties in favour of leaders that promise radical change and an antidote to the ills of globalisation that has left so many behind. Electorates the world over no longer want to see politics as usual, but they want corruption rooted out, an end to jobless growth, and to rid the corridors of power of the corrupt elite. South Africa is no more immune to this trend than any other country.

But the most important lesson is that such populism often takes the form of narrow nationalistic and often racist sentiment, that breeds the politics of intolerance and hate – exclusion as opposed to inclusion. This is the opposite of what we need in South Africa as the only way forward is to ensure greater levels of social cohesion, not less. Ethnic division and xenophobia will only tear our already fractured social fabric apart, and set us on a downward spiral that will have devastating consequences. As a society we need to guard against the signs of populism which use nativist sentiment to whip up support, when in fact the dramatic political promises that accompany such rhetoric often ring hollow.

As South Africans we must guard against the weaponization of immigration where politicians try to place the blame for our societal ills on illegal immigrants and foreigners. When our politicians on both the left and the right start resorting to bigotry and dog whistle politics whereby they isolate minority racial or religious groups, then we know we have started down a dangerous and slippery slope. There are already signs of just such vengeful nationalism emanating from some of our political parties.

What we do need are mature politicians who are truly committed to redressing the inequalities in our country, which sadly remains one of the most unequal societies in the world. The politicians who can be most trusted to lift us out of the situation we find ourselves in are not those who invoke populist rhetoric, but those who present viable solutions and outline a roadmap for how we are going to build our economy, attract investment and ensure far higher levels of economic growth. If we can get that right it will become easier to tackle one of our most overwhelming challenges – that of rampant crime – as more citizens in our country will have a stake in the formal economy. As we enter election season and our politicians promise us the moon, we should just remember the old adage that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Shannon Ebrahim is the foreign editor for the Independent Media Group.