President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: GCIS
President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: GCIS

In arguing that the conditions for populism in SA are fertile “Don’t blame voters’ populist choices in an unjust nation”, (February 19), Neva Makgetla would do better to compare popular backlashes in history to make the point.

Wherever they occurred, four conditions prevailed: very high rates of immigration; a deep-seated impression among citizens that corruption is systemic; high levels of actual inequality and disparity; and a severe financial crisis to trigger events.   

While the workers on her flat-bed truck may conceivably agree that research finds immigrants beneficial to a neoliberal economy, I suspect they will still not welcome them. SA has had a disruptive influx of migrants from Africa since 1994. Little needs to be said on economic corruption, but factored in must also be the widely held belief that the body politic is being manipulated and participation thus ineffectual.  

For populism to succeed now, a demagogue is needed who can tie these perceptions into a convincing story line for change and blame. However, such a leader will have some difficulties because the new black middle-class will disagree, looking at their incomes, that the “1994 compromise” was a failure. Being given full political franchise was inevitably a first step since economic empowerment cannot be as instant.

Indeed, to think that President Cyril Ramaphosa, as co-architect of the constitution, would insist on an “alternative economic system” if Codesa had to be rerun now, is itself magical thinking. And in respect of income inequality, such a leader would also have a hard time wresting a large following in the face of the welfare, income and service improvements since 1994, as noted by Makgetla.   

The financial crisis now confronting us, or more pointedly the impending debt-trap, will surely erode the said welfare gains and shrink the middle-class, thereby enhancing the field for a demagogue. However, a much more likely first scene in my view is that the ANC will rip itself apart, and loose power, once in the trap.  

Jens Kuhn
Cape Town