8 December 2023

[Photo credit - Mail&Guardian]

By Imraan Buccus

In a piece over the weekend, former Deputy Minister of Finance, Mcebisi Jonas does well to ask a critical question – ‘How do we safeguard ourselves against new forms of economic and political populism that thrive in chaos and uncertainty?’

It is now clear that the ANC’s days in power are numbered. The party may be able to hang on to power for another election cycle in a coalition with the EFF, but an expedient alliance with a notoriously corrupt external faction will only be the final nail in the coffin of a once great movement. 

There is a growing sense of unease that what follows the ANC may be a case of the country being taken out of the frying pan and into the fire. This is because most of the new social forces emerging as the ANC’s credibility flatlines are demagogic forms of authoritarian populism, with the bulk taking the form of far right politics.

Although we have significant mass based organisations on the factory floor and in the shack settlements, and although there is still a left within the ANC in the form of the SACP, we do not have a left party. It is true that parties like Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain emerged and then surged very quickly but it is unlikely that something similar could happen here. 

There are a number of reasons for this. One is that there are clear divisions between the mass-based left in and out of the ANC. There are also strong divisions between most of the mass-based formations and the middle class left intelligentsia. This is all compounded by a long-established culture of vicious sectarianism, where character assassination is often taken up with far more enthusiasm than actual organising. The political maturity that enabled the development of parties like Syriza and Podemos is just not present in the often toxic space of the South African left.

Of course, left renewal can come out of existing parties. We saw this in the US and the UK where there were impressive left surges around Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn who came out of existing political structures. But we have no similar established charismatic leader who could quickly win the trust of people across the country. Solly Mapaila is arguably the most impressive personality in the wider ANC left but he is not well known by the general public. In fact he doesn’t have much of a public profile at all.

The failure of the left to build a party, or to even unite the mass-based organisations around some shared campaigns, means that the political space opening up as the ANC collapses is largely being taken by the right.

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Songezo Zibi’s social democratic project is probably the only broadly progressive hope, but while he has a manifesto out, and is running an important set of public discussions through his Rivonia Circle, he does not yet have an actual party, and lacks the name recognition to be able to go it alone.

Among the established parties the DA has gone too far down the road of Helen Zille’s dubious racial politics to be able to ever be anything other than a small ethnic party. It is the IFP, a party of the hard ethno-nationalist right, that is making rapid gains in KwaZulu-Natal but of course it too has ethnic limitations, limitations that give it a regional character. 

All of the major new entrants are forms of authoritarian populism under demagogic leadership – this includes the EFF, ActionSA and the Patriotic Alliance. ActionSA and the PA have followed global trends by trying to build right-wing projects around xenophobia. Mogoeng Mogoeng’s new party, the All African Alliance Movement (AAAM) is following the script with a crudely xenophobic orientation.

Outside of electoral politics Operation Dudula has done the same on the basis of a sort of incoherent fascism. If it linked up with a right-wing party it could become to South Africa what the street thugs in the Shiv Sena are to the Hindu fascist BJP in India. 

This is a toxic brew of street thugs, authoritarians, kleptocrats, demagogues and some outright scoundrels. Malema poses the most immediate national danger. His party seems to have reached an electoral ceiling at around 10% of the vote but if the ANC turns to the EFF with the aim of staying in power after, as expected, it drops under 50% of the vote in the next election he may be able to exercise a lot more power than his share of the vote implies.

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But Herman Mashaba and Gayton McKenzie are already doing serious damage to the social fabric with their xenophobia and recklessly opportunistic approach to the delicate work of coalition building. If Mogoeng is able, as he hopes, to unite a right-wing religious constituency he could also become a real threat to progressive values.

We should not underestimate the danger to society and to the democratic project posed by the advances of right-wing parties and their demagogic leaders. A quick glance at recent history shows that the far right was able to storm into power in places like India, Brazil, the United States, Poland, Hungary and Italy. One common feature of populism across many parts of the world is around how minorities are scapegoated while the elites plunder the public purse. There is no reason to assume that we will be immune from this risk.

And a quick look at a longer span of history shows that in times of mass unemployment there has often been a turn to right wing authoritarianism, including fascism. This risk is always worsened when a ruling elite is perceived to be distant from the people and corrupted. 

We have staggering levels of unemployment, and widespread disgust at an ANC leadership considered to be out of touch, corrupt and selfish. We know that Malema has not been able to win mass support despite the extent of the ANC’s crisis of credibility. But if a charismatic right-wing leader can emerge and promise, as Donald Trump did, to restore order, ‘drain the swamp and ‘put South Africans first’ we could swiftly find ourselves in serious politic crisis. 

McKenzie is probably the most odious of the new crop of right-wing demagogues with his revolting xenophobia and open pursuit of self-interest at the expense of improving municipal governance. But, because like the DA and the IFP he is running what is ultimately an ethnic project, his prospects to win real power are close to zero. 

It is Mashaba and Moegeng who currently pose the most danger. But who knows what rough best is beginning to slouch towards the Union Buildings?

Dr Buccus is editor of Al-Qalam 

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