This is a country that Julius Malema praised for using its vast oil reserves "to uplift the masses", changing the lives of millions.

It’s certainly true that Venezuela’s policies have changed the lives of millions, just not positively. Forget medicine, today you can’t even get bread, as government only imports 25% of the wheat needed to make bread. Queues start forming outside Caracas’s bakeries before dawn.

Venezuela’s implosion, splashed across newspapers and TV screens this week, should be a cautionary tale for those in the ANC who believe that President Jacob Zuma’s increasingly populist tone is harmless.

For years, the ruinous impact of the policies of former President Hugo Chavez (price controls, mandated minimum wages, for example) were masked by the high price of oil, which provided 95% of Venezuela’s export revenue. But the great oil price crash of 2014 laid bare just how reckless these policies are.

It showed that populism does not give power to the people, but rather to elites and individual politicians who use their so-called legitimacy of direct appeal to bypass the institutions of state and civil society. Judges who challenged Chavez were dismissed, and only sweetheart trade unions were allowed.

President Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s successor, "made the central bank his personal minting ministry", in the words of the Financial Times, "in a country where the constitution establishes an independent central bank". Rather than cut spending, he simply printed more money.

"Populism will always stand in tension with democracy," according to Prof Kurt Weyland of the University of Texas, because populist leaders "see any institutions outside their control as obstacles to be bypassed or overcome."

Much of this resonates with the "state capture" paradigm that has developed so chillingly in SA.

True, our judiciary has tougher armour against interference than Venezuela, and our media remains free and trade unions independent. But no judge, journalist or shop steward can protect the country from ruinous economic policies.

Zuma is pushing for "radical economic transformation (RET)" — which seems, in his conception, to be, at best, a populist redistribution programme. At worst, it’s a slogan to conceal the self-serving actions of Zuma and his cronies.

What RET really means will emerge in the next few months — and all eyes are on finance minister Malusi Gigaba. Gigaba has said little about RET in recent days, and now seems more concerned about expenditure ceilings and fiscal discipline. This is a surprisingly positive sign, even if he is still hamstrung by the suspicion he was appointed to do Zuma’s bidding because Gordhan wouldn’t.

Either way, there is some comfort in the fact that the key institution charged with maintaining price stability is the Reserve Bank – and the five-year tenure of the highly regarded governor Lesetja Kganyago ends only in November 2019.

So, SA is not in the position of Venezuela – but it will require constant vigilance to keep us from that slippery slope. It seems depressingly evident that there is no prospect of an early departure for Zuma. But business has a duty to speak out and keep the heat on his administration regardless. The other path leads to Venezuela.

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