Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema. Picture: GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP
Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema. Picture: GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP

The year 2018 can be remembered as the one in which the global fire of populism set politics alight in SA. Given that it is the year before high-stakes national elections, it has not been unexpected.

Policy-wise it was the year in which parliament resolved to amend the constitution to explicitly allow for land expropriation without compensation — an ideal championed by the ANC and the EFF.

However, South Africans saw parliament ignore thousands of written submissions on the matter as it finalised its report, essentially shutting out the voices of those opposed to the amendment. The distinct racial tone the debate took on even moved former president Thabo Mbeki to write a discussion paper in which he said the ANC was abandoning its historical nonracial values.

It was also a year in which the DA marched in the Cape Flats, calling for the army to be deployed to deal with the gangsterism that plagues the area. During the march, the party’s supporters carried posters bearing the words "All South Africans first", reminiscent of US President Donald Trump’s "Make America great again" campaign slogan. The tagline drew extensive criticism, and failed to make the cut for the DA’s election campaign. The final slogan it decided on is a far cry from this rally for SA exceptionalism; the party has opted for an inclusive message of "One SA for all".

But the DA did not abandon its dog-whistle call to xenophobic voters: one of its election pillars focuses on tighter border control and taking a hard line on immigration — another of Trump’s favourite campaign messages.

These actions exemplify what political analyst Ebrahim Fakir describes as popular issues being dealt with by populist means.

He believes issues such as land, immigration, jobs and crime are not populist issues by nature — but when they are discussed in an unmediated, uncritical and unthoughtful way, with no basis in evidence, they tend to inspire populist public discussion and populist policies.

The politics of pragmatism, — of realism, — is suffering at the moment, as it doesn’t promise instant results
Somadoda Fikeni

The land question is a case in point.

"Once you take popular issues and discuss them in populist ways without subjecting them to the framework of mediation, critical thought, evidence and problem-solving orientation, you end up opening the floodgates of discussing every popular issue in a populist way," Fakir says.

Once you’ve set a precedent in the way that a debate over land, for example, is handled, "what’s next? Arbitrary deprivation of private property? Why not?"

Fakir says every party in SA is guilty of this escalation. The ANC flirts dangerously with the question of race, drawing "perilously" close to the edge before it pulls back. "The EFF just goes," he says, "and masks it in the crudest racial terms. So does the BLF [Black First Land First movement]."

The DA is also not above stepping into the populist realm, says Fakir, referring among others to comments by DA leader Mmusi Maimane about doubling social grants, as well as the party’s stance on immigration.

In contrast, Fakir points to the discussion about the national minimum wage as an example of a popular issue that was not dealt with in a populist way. The problem, he says, can in some instances be traced to failing governance systems.

"Once you exhaust all the popular issues and more and more issues are addressed in a populist way, the next step to that is … self-organisation on the basis of ethnic, or narrow, or other interests."

What it means

Socioeconomic distress and disillusionment with the democratic dispensation give populist rhetoric undue force

From there, it’s a natural progression to vigilantism and self-organised networks of patronage and protection — something Fakir believes is already happening.

The issue is broader than just SA. Somadoda Fikeni, a professor and political analyst at Unisa, says populism in SA has to be seen in the global context.

"Globally, we are undergoing a historical phase of populism in politics in general. We are in the era of populism in Europe, in Latin America, in the US and so on. And it seems to have worked," Fikeni says.

He attributes the hold of populist rhetoric in SA to the country’s failure to resolve its socioeconomic woes. There’s also the "post-honeymoon phase" of the democratic dispensation: populist policies find fertile ground when people become cynical.

But knowledge of facts and the scientific examination of events are also often secondary to the psychological stimulation of fear or hope.

"The politics of pragmatism — of realism — is suffering at the moment, as it doesn’t promise instant results," Fikeni says.

He expects the heated political climate to cool — for a while, at least. But then, of course, the 2021 local government elections will be right around the corner.