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South Africa’s Brexit/Trump moment looms large

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The chances of South Africa’s Brexit/Trump moment arriving in the general election scheduled for 2019, but coming from the other (left) side of the political spectrum, might be bigger than many believe.

Political analyst, author and journalist Justice Malala was spot-on when he wrote last week that Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema is in  “… tune with the rise of the new right” as it manifested itself in the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States.

It is important to note that, as we reported last week, almost three decades ago South Africa’s transition to democracy came about at the end of the international Cold War. This was followed by an era of globalisation, which now seems to have run into problems in countries across the globe.

In short, it delivered an international financial crisis in 2008. In its wake, deep disillusionment with the ruling political and economic elites has gripped the majority of the populations in most countries on the back of growing economic inequality, falling real income, lack of employment opportunities and declining standards of living.

It created almost a new class in the political body of countries – those left behind by the globalised world. To these people the ‘outside world’ has become the enemy, which has robbed them of control over their own destinies.

A huge trust deficit developed between the ‘left-behind’ majority and elite groups.

This situation has opened the gap for populist leaders to step forward and fill the void with extreme solutions for people taking back power over their own destinies and getting rid of the ‘invading’ enemy that is ‘robbing them of job opportunities’ or of elites exporting jobs to cheap labour abroad.

This gave rise to mean nationalism, xenophobia towards immigrants and, in South Africa’s case, towards minority groups.

In the US, the UK and Europe the gap was mainly filled by right-wing populists and most analysts predict that Trump will be followed by like-minded populist leaders in a number of European countries in the next few years.

South Africa

In South Africa, the disillusionment and frustration of unfulfilled post-democratisation expectations have been intensified by the corruption and state-capturing elite under the leadership of President Jacob Zuma.

Ironically, as is pointed out in an article on the website ANC Today by Zuko Godlimpi (an ANC Youth League member), Mr Zuma’s rise to power in 2009 at Polokwane as a kind of populist leader “… was practically centered on similar patterns (in South Africa) at the start of the Global Recession; a democratic transition that was slow in shifting wealth structures to black people, jobless economic growth, stagnant wages and cries of a bullish behaviour in how power was being wielded to victimise political opponents by an arrogant political elite etc.”

According to Godlimpi, former president Thabo Mbeki’s “grand idealism of an African Renaissance came crashing as inequality and industrial economic decline spawned ground resentment”.

“An alienating sense of an elite pact that limited economic transformation to an inner circle of comrades, through BEE deals, accentuated the fallout.”

He went on to write: “The increasing radicalisation of the black middle class on race relations, rising vigilance around questions of corruption, binding concerns for things like Free Education, the prominence of radical politics and the rise of crude populist figures etc. all of which are now directed against President Zuma, the erstwhile rallying point of similar discontent, also betrays a ten year cycle that has not effectively delivered the economic and political restructuring that was projected.”

His conclusion in addressing the ANC is that: “If the prevailing political polarity persists without the ANC asserting itself as the driving political centre on the basis of superior political values that are coherently articulated alongside visible transformation in economic and social relations, then the stage is set for us to be the Hillary Clintons of this country.”

It is going to be a long, taxing election campaign until 2019, but it has indeed already begun. The official opposition Democratic Alliance is, with some success, going for the ANC’s jugular, with all the opportunities offered to them by the Jacob Zuma faction of the party.

The ANC is involved in a desperate effort to contain and repair the damage and some of the party’s leaders embarked this past weekend on, among other things, a political education programme in various regions,

In the meantime, Julius Malema is increasingly doing exactly what Trump has done – just from the left, but, in line with South African realities, from a black nationalistic platform.

What is needed

In our estimation it is too late and South Africa too far down the road of disillusionment due to broken promises and fragmentation of the party, for the ANC to regain what Godlimpi calls “asserting itself as the driving political centre on the basis of superior political values that are coherently articulated alongside visible transformation in economic and social relations”.

The DA, however, also runs the risk of becoming a victim of the present developing political climate. It can ill afford complacency that attacking the ANC and fighting corruption will be enough to reposition itself away from its present image as representing the economic elite – be it the perceived white “privileged” or including the rising black middle class.

Fact is, that it is where the core of its support lies. It needs to find a message and identify issues to champion that appeals to the disillusioned majority.

This, however, does not mean that come 2019 Julius Malema and his EFF will just replace the ANC as the all-dominating political force in the country à la Donald Trump.

What is mostly forgotten in the hype and analysis of the American election results is that Hillary Clinton still won most of the popular vote and lost the presidential election only due the electoral college system peculiar to the US.

Under the South African proportional election system, the EFF is very unlikely to win an overall majority of the seats in parliament.

With the present fracturing of the ANC the political landscape will probably look dramatically different from what it was in 2014. Expect the names of several new parties on the ballot paper in 2017.

It is way too early to attempt to make predictions at this stage, but hopefully for the sake of the country’s future we will in good time see some leaders step forward to consolidate the middle ground – be it under a single banner or in firm coalitions.

by Piet Coetzer

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