Mondli Makhanya: Populists on your stoep

2019-06-10 00:15

False prophets come in all shapes and sizes.

The common denominator among them is that they are dangerous beings – they promise the world to those who will listen, and prey on the vulnerable and poorly informed.

On the one hand, they whip up grievances, while, on the other, they give false hope.

In the modern political arena, they call them populists.

The recent past has seen them rising to the top of the political food chain and taking charge of powerful governments.

US Professor Jan-Werner Müller, who is an expert on populism, warned in a recent article in the London Review of Books that they have “developed a common strategy, and what might even be called a shared authoritarian-populist art of governance”.

He pointed to the tactics of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Turkey’s Recep Erdogan, the US’s Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.

Even India’s Narendra Modi, who heads up the world’s most populous democracy, falls into this group.

“The populist art of governance is based on nationalism (often with racist overtones), on hijacking the state for the ends of partisan loyalists and, less obviously, on weaponising the economy to secure political power: a combination of culture war, patronage and mass clientelism,” he wrote.

Former president Jacob Zuma

These populists despise the constraints on power that come with regular democracy.

Institutions such as an independent judiciary, a free media and vibrant civil society are anathema to them.

They also like to have partners in their criminality as this “binds them [the partners] to the regime” and they reward supporters with patronage to “assure compelling loyalty and mass allegiance”.

They also make out that those who don’t support them are threatened “with losing jobs or benefits”. This minimises the need to resort to direct repression.

Populists also love conspiracies – there’s always some other force to blame for society’s woes and your own failings.

That manufactured ogre comes in the form of bullying foreign governments, rebellious civil society and “unpatriotic” opposition.

A country that has a surfeit of false prophets. There are those who offer great riches to all; those who promise healing; those who claim to bring the dead back to life; and some who can lengthen your number and give you sextuplets.

While Müller specifically focuses on right-wing populism, populists are also found on the left.

Hugo Chávez, one of the most revered socialists of the 21st century, was a populist to the core – authoritarian and despising of the basic tenets of modern democracy.

His lightweight successor Nicolás Maduro is of the same ilk. All of Venezuela’s ills were courtesy of the CIA in the US; every paranoid individual’s favourite bogeyman.

So after that roundabout tour, we come home to our good republic, a country that has a surfeit of false prophets.

There are those who offer great riches to all; those who promise healing; those who claim to bring the dead back to life; and some who can lengthen your number and give you sextuplets.

Then there are the political false prophets – the populists who have gone mainstream. While populism was once on the periphery of our politics, the ascendancy of Jacob Zuma and his faction gave it heft.

For the first time in democratic South Africa, the governing party and the country were in the hands of someone who had no qualms about lying to the people about what he could do for them.

In the vein of all nationalist populists, he and his crew turned the state into a plunderous machine; broke the institutions so that they could get away with murder; bullied the judiciary; and characterised the media and civil society as being insurrectionary. Conspiracies abounded about Western influences on those who were questioning the direction of the country.

Patronage became the order of the day as favours were dished out willy-nilly. Zuma created a network of criminally minded politicians and rent-seekers within the realms of the ANC and its allies, ensuring that he had plenty of protection.

When Zuma was removed, he left behind an intact network that had developed a life of its own. He may still be the spiritual godfather of this network, but it no longer needed him as its raison d’être. The plunder and the need to protect the legacy of plunder remains.

The remnants of his populist ways remain in the fake ideological posture of elements in the party.

This is the element that wanted to use the 2017 ANC conference at Nasrec to turn the party into a fully fledged populist outfit. Working under the cover of a nebulous concept called radical economic transformation, they wanted to cement what Zuma had started.

This populist streak, which loves to set unachievable targets and give false hope to the people, was evident in the statement released by the ANC after its national executive committee meeting last week.

Aside from the startling populist gumpf about turning the SA Reserve Bank into a money photocopier and other such nonsense, there was a decision to “reduce unemployment from 27.6% to 14% in the next five years”.

How will an economy that is expected to average growth of 1.3% this year, 1.8% next year and only get to 2.4% by 2023 achieve this?

Perhaps only Credo Mutwa could explain this to us. Government would also be instructed to “declare a three-shift economy to increase the prospect of employment, especially among young people”.

Populism is well incubated in the country’s majority party.

It is not just the rot Zuma left behind that needs to be rooted out if South Africa is to rise.

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August 18 2019