Populism isn’t that popular in South Africa

South Africa is not faced by the prospect of a populist government run by a far-right leadership. Nevertheless, the majority must brace itself for another cycle of economic devastation.

In recent days the far right has continued its terrifying planetary advance. Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party, both often termed fascist, won a decisive victory in the Indian election. In the elections for the European Parliament the far right stormed ahead in Italy, France and the United Kingdom. In the United Kingdom there is a real and horrifying prospect that Boris Johnson, a right-wing buffoon often compared to Donald Trump, could be the next Prime Minister.

Electorates in Brazil, Hungary, India, Israel, Italy, the Philippines, Poland, Turkey, and the United States have all chosen leaders from the far right. In all these countries a toxic synthesis of hyper capitalism, authoritarianism and chauvinism is rapidly remaking common sense in the interests of the right. Views and actions that were unspeakable a few years ago are rapidly becoming normalised. And, crucially, in all of these societies the phenomenon usually described as “right-wing populism” is genuinely popular.

In South Africa we have lived through many of the developments often associated with the global rise of right-wing authoritarianism. Jacob Zuma presented himself in a masculinist and often militaristic way. When he came under sustained critique there were active, usually vulgar and dishonest, and often quite successful attempts to poison the public sphere. Crude forms of nationalism were mobilised to mask the avarice of a predatory elite. Political repression escalated dramatically and in some parts of the country political violence became a routine feature of political life.

And, of course, xenophobia, central to the politics of the new right, has been a sustained presence in the political discourse of elites, and some actors operating in spaces of exclusion and marginalisation.

In party political terms we have witnessed phenomena usually associated with the global rise of the far right in both the faction of the African National Congress (ANC) that cohered around Zuma, and is now led by Ace Magashule, and in the politics of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). There are many aspects of the policy commitments of the EFF that are more aligned to an authoritarian and resolutely statist conception of the left than the new forms of right-wing politics encircling much of the globe. But the party’s masculinist and militarist posture, their reliance on mediatised forms of individual charisma, their hyper nationalism, their mobilisation of crude forms of chauvinism and intimidation, their regular recourse to brazen dishonesty and their vulgarity are familiar features of the rise of the right.

Unpopular populism

Nonetheless, the salient fact is that while many South Africans hold conservative ideas, and xenophobia is a constant threat, what is often termed “populism” is not genuinely popular as an electoral alternative.

Under Zuma, electoral support for the ANC went into steep decline. When the nature of his rule became widely apparent he was regularly booed in public. And while the media gives figures like Zuma and Malema constant attention, and creates a false perception of their popularity, the reality is that Zuma has never, despite all that media attention, and access to serious money, been able to mobilise significant crowds to support him on the streets. From the mobilisations at his rape trial in 2006 to the mobilisation at his court appearance last week, the turn-out to support him has invariably been small. There have been many grassroots mobilisations, that often get minimal media coverage and generally have very limited resources, that have far exceeded the scale of gatherings in support of Zuma.

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The recent march supporting that strong Zuma backer, Durban mayor Zandile Gumede, after she was charged with serious criminal offences, reportedly attracted 150 people. This is a joke in a city where the shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo regularly attracts crowds of up to 5 000 people for its rallies – events that are often entirely ignored by the media. Last Friday a coalition of poor people’s organisations representing shack dwellers, street traders and others had to quickly turn a planned picket against the mayor into a march when more than a thousand people showed up.

There is no doubt that the faction in the ANC that misused nationalism to mask its predation on the state became powerful in the ruling party, and that it retains significant power bases within the party. But all the evidence – from street mobilisation to elections – shows that it enjoys no real popularity in society. There’s also no doubt that the EFF has used the media, including, naturally, social media, far more astutely than any other party. But in electoral terms the party is far from being a serious contender for power. And, of course, none of the clutch of pro-Zuma parties set up before the election, or the parties that hinged their aspirations on xenophobia, won any significant support.

Popular promises

However, Ramaphosa’s promise to clean up corruption is, clearly, genuinely popular. It is not yet clear how things will play out in cities like Durban and Pietermaritzburg, or provinces like Mpumalanga and the Free State, where forces previously aligned to Zuma remain strong. But it is clear that while these forces retain significant power in the ruling party they are fundamentally vulnerable for the simple reason that they are not popular in society.

We do not face anything like the situation that must now be confronted in countries such as Brazil, India and the United States. As numerous commentators noted, our recent election saw the vast bulk of the votes going to Ramaphosa’s ANC, and the Democratic Alliance. Both parties did embrace some forms of the new right-wing politics, such as a scurrilous descent into xenophobia, but, in the main, both projects occupy a space that is, in global terms, broadly centrist.

As Ramaphosa settles into office we must brace ourselves for another cycle of economic devastation for the majority. There are no prospects of a genuinely social project emerging from Ramaphosa’s ANC and, for this reason, the renewal of the ANC’s legitimacy that has been achieved by opposition to corruption will not be sustainable. What comes next is a critical question.

A progressive alternative to the ongoing devastation that is inevitable when society is subordinated to capital will have to be built, from the ground up, through the long haul of organisation, mobilisation and intellectual work. There is what Frantz Fanon called a “weary road” ahead. But for the moment we don’t  – unlike, say, Brazil or India – confront the dark night of a state under the authority of leaders that can credibly be termed fascist.

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