South Africa, World

Analysis: South Africa’s Trump moment is brewing

By Simon Freemantle 16 December 2016

It is vital that we consider the nationalist and populist forces that conspired to drive Trump’s shocking victory, in so doing ensuring that we are not caught off-guard when the profound frustrations that we know to exist across our body politic find more formal and deliberate political expression here. By SIMON FREEMANTLE.

Donald Trump’s election as US president has shaken the global political and economic “order”. Trump bulldozed his way to power by openly flouting the long-held rules of the game – indeed, in many senses it was the “game” itself, together with its predetermined power structures, vested interests and noble ideals that he so petulantly and, ultimately, successfully railed against. And in doing so he tapped into a profound nerve of discontent across the American population, while ruthlessly and at-times appallingly pandering to a bigoted, misogynist, chest-thumping view of American identity, and promising to return it to “greatness”.

Those convinced of the irreversibility of the liberal gains that have marked the post-WW2 period have been flattened by the result, coming so soon after they were more mildly stung by UK voters’ rejection of the European Union. They (and I count myself among this constituency) didn’t see this coming – or, at least, we indignantly refused to believe that there was such support for what Trump, and in the UK Nigel Farage, appeared to espouse. Those against Trump sought solace in the polls, which until the end were almost unanimous in their expectation that Hillary Clinton would win (as imperfect a candidate as she was, too), as well as their liberal echo chambers of outrage following each of Trump’s countless controversies, and their certainty that the America they knew would surely reject the seismic backward turn that Trump’s election would represent.

And this may only be the beginning: few will now be willing to pre-emptively dismiss the chance of Marine Le Pen’s National Front, and Geert Wilders’ anti-EU and anti-Islam Party for Freedom winning elections next year in France and the Netherlands, respectively. And in Germany, though there is little (if any) chance of the two dominant political parties being muscled from power, it appears inevitable that the worryingly far-right AfD (the “Alternative for Germany”) will elevate its proportionate share of the vote in next year’s elections in that country – rising, as it already has in some regional elections this year, on the back of domestic resistance to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s willingness to open the borders to Syrian refugees in particular last year.

The scale of these shifts is such that all countries around the world must consider how they will be affected, and, where possible, make the necessary plans to alleviate their potentially harmful economic, political and social effects.

Though this discussion has certainly begun in South Africa, it has thus far focused narrowly on the kinds of economic and foreign policy implications that Trump’s election, and Brexit, may bring for the country and continent. Though this investigation is an important one, it is vital that we also consider the nationalist and populist forces that conspired to drive Trump’s shocking victory, in so doing ensuring that we are not caught off-guard when the profound frustrations that we know to exist across our body politic find more formal and deliberate political expression here, as they have just done in the UK and the United States.

While answers to the Trump phenomenon in particular are still being pulled from the debris of his electoral triumph, some of the domestic and global forces which allowed his victory appear clear. And four of these are immediately relevant for South Africa.

First, Trump from the outset placed a resistance to immigration as his campaign bedrock. He opened his campaign by claiming that Mexican immigrants in the US are “rapists”, and never looked back. It appears clear that much of the success achieved by those advocating for UK’s exit from the EU, too, was based on the ability to openly pander to xenophobic sentiments throughout the country, and so too for many of the far-right political movements sweeping across mainland Europe.

South Africa is, in this regard, profoundly vulnerable. According to a 2015 survey by Afrobarometer one in five South Africans would like government to “deport all foreigners, irrespective of their legal status”; two-thirds state that that they don’t “at all” trust foreigners living in the country; and one-third believe that government is managing immigration-related issues “very badly”. The underlying intolerance of foreigners that cuts through South African society was most vigorously exposed by two recent and extraordinarily violent spells of xenophobic rage (in 2008 and 2015).

And though few South African politicians have been as willing as Trump has been to scrape the moral barrel by openly stoking anti-foreigner sentiment, there are worrying signals of a change in this regard. Indeed, last year’s rolling xenophobic violence was to a large extent triggered by inciting anti-foreigner statements made by Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini – and the recent statements of some senior ANC leaders, such as Minister of Small Business Lindiwe Zulu who accused foreign shop owners of refusing to share their “trade secrets” with South Africans, and North West Premier Supra Mahumapelo, who in the build-up to this year’s elections stated that foreigners should be prevented from running spaza shops in the province in order to create new job opportunities for South African citizens – are perhaps signals of underlying intent.

The DA’s Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba recently entered the fray, too, stating that the “constraints” he faces at the local government level are because “the national government has opened our borders to criminality”. Importantly, and fortunately, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) – the country’s most openly populist political party – still holds to its original manifesto, which was clear in its belief that all African immigrants should enjoy equal rights to South Africans to live, work and access state support in the country. This is not a particularly popular stance, but the EFF has until now held to it.

Two additional factors exacerbate the tensions outlined above. The first is the weak performance of the South African economy, which appears still to be incapable of reducing its crippling rate of unemployment. This means that anti-foreigner sentiments rest on a bed of socio-economic insecurity given the persistent scarceness of basic resources – thus allowing the common (and statistically unfounded) refrain that foreigners “steal” the jobs that should be given to South African citizens. This pressure is unlikely to abate imminently: according to the IMF, South Africa’s economy will expand by just 1.4% on average over the course of the next five years – below the growth rate of the population (implying that, on a per capita basis, growth will be negative).

Second, as was so clearly reflected in this year’s municipal elections, the ANC’s post-1994 hegemony on the national majority is, in tandem with internal cohesion, beginning to meaningfully slide – widening the opportunity for new parties to emerge to chip away at the ruling party’s flanks, and forcing the ANC to adopt new narratives to prevent more meaningful future loss. It is therefore not implausible that in future election cycles South Africa’s already vulnerable immigrant community will be used as a battering ram by political groupings eager to muster easy electoral favour. Indeed, research by the African Centre for Migration & Society shows how frequently local power struggles in informal settlements across the country are already linked to various forms of selective mobilisation against foreigners.

A second clear feature of Trump’s campaign was his positioning of himself on the periphery of the “establishment”. In this regard Trump’s complete inexperience (he is the first elected president of the country never to have held a position in government or the military) was a valuable tool in his drive to represent the opportunity for real and dramatic change of the status quo. In this sense, Trump exposed and leveraged deep mistrust across American society of government, the corporate and financial elite (captured by his criticism of Wall Street), and the media.

A similar mistrust and frustration is growing across South Africa, and is enabled by the country’s slow progress in widening the pool of those benefiting from economic opportunity, as well as the extraordinarily high levels of income inequality that cut through all layers of society.

In this year’s Edelman Trust Barometer just 16% of South Africans claimed to trust the government – reflecting deep and unmoving frustrations around income inequality as well as varying expectations and hopes of the future. Indeed, the ANC’s Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe has lamented what he has referred to as a growing “trust deficit” the ANC is experiencing from its electoral base – a deficit which was so clearly reflected in the profound decline in voter turnout from typical ANC bases in this year’s local elections. Quite clearly, this deficit has widened in tandem with the deterioration in President Zuma’s approval ratings: in a further study by Afrobarometer in 2014/15 just 34% of South African respondents claimed to have trust in the president (a figure we know to be even lower now), the second-lowest level amongst 11 African countries surveyed at the time.

Both the ANC and the EFF already use anti-establishment narratives to bolster their institutional and at-times individual political campaigns. Here the most fertile terrain appears to be the suggestion that the residual grip of “white monopoly capital”, rather than state or party failure, is responsible for the torpid pace of economic transformation in the country. President Zuma has recently upped this ante – suggesting that criticism of his leadership has arisen as a result of the threat he claims to present to an established and international global economic elite. The president appears convinced that South Africa’s membership of the BRICS grouping makes it, and him, a bolder target in the drive from those he believes the BRICS threaten to undermine their collective global influence. Though the president’s recent assertions appear desperate and analytically unsound, the broader suggestion that there has been too little fundamental economic transformation in the country can be far more credibly supported. Important is that in a recent income survey conducted by one of South Africa’s financial institutions it was revealed that for every R1 earned by white individuals, blacks earned 13 cents – and this divide is unchanged since 1996.

A third and vital feature of Trump’s election was the importance of the support he was able to draw from the so-called “silent majority” – a group of people who tended not to express their preferences publicly, or reflected these preferences dishonestly when asked, and were thus not adequately captured in the polling data. Though the analogy is admittedly an imperfect one, South Africa’s “silent majority” is, I believe, the country’s youth – or, more specifically, it’s “born free” generation. According to the last Census (2014) 26.6-million South Africans have been born since Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, and yet, though they account for fully half of the country’s population, they have not yet made a significant electoral mark.

Going into this year’s municipal elections the IEC revealed that only 547,534 of 18-19-year-olds (2% of the total) were registered to vote. Even if we expand this to include 20-29-year-olds, the “born frees” only account for around one-fifth of the country’s total registered voting population. If or when the “born frees” do more actively participate in elections, their preferences and demands – an indication of which can be drawn from the past year of student protests across campuses which began with the 2015 #feesmustfall movement – may fundamentally and profoundly realign the country’s political system and reframe the values that underpin it that are now too easily assumed to be immovable, or sacrosanct.

Indeed, a 2011 Afrobarometer report into the “born-frees” found that “the post-apartheid generation is less committed to democracy than their parents or grandparents”; that “while the country’s new schooling curriculum was meant to produce a new type of democrat, only the products of the country’s historically advantaged schools seem to have profited from this process”; and the advantages of political freedom that the born-frees should be experiencing are “diminished by frustrating encounters with the political process, victimisation by corrupt officials, and enduring unemployment and poverty”.

The majority of today’s youth are coming of age at a time of economic stress and deep political disharmony, and amid rising perceptions of corruption and the failure of those in power to provide the promise that the post-1994 project so clearly inspired. This understandably clouds belief in the status quo, and may open the door for non-democratic alternatives in the future which may trade some of the freedoms we believe now to be irreversibly entrenched for more immediate economic access and prosperity.

Linked to the above, the depth of the disconnect between the liberal, largely coastal, elite in the US and those they appear to have somewhat casually disregarded in the country’s middle and southern rump (and who broadly formed the base of Trump’s victory) has clear parallels in South Africa. Here, the crippling effect of apartheid’s unresolved social and spatial legacies means that there is limited real engagement between the elite and the country’s poor majority. There is simply too wide a chasm in our lived experiences. The middle class rises in protest against government’s e-toll plan, and in defence of those seen to be preserving fiscal and economic stability, but is unacceptably mute with regards to the violence and loss that characterises the daily lives of much of the country’s peri-urban and rural poor.

We have all failed to hold those responsible for the Marikana massacre to account, for we failed to register the kind of sustained outrage that would have forced a greater degree of accountability, of compensation, and a genuine search to understand how – and where – things could have gone so wrong. Unless this gulf is bridged it will hold potentially serious and lasting political and social consequences.

Fourth, the “post-truth politics” that has so deeply strengthened the populist tide in the US and Europe appears to be lapping on our shores, too. We’re in the early stages in this regard, but the brazen selectiveness of the Gupta-owned ANN7’s coverage of former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s State of Capture report is an important harbinger of a future course that must somehow be checked. And though ANN7 and The New Age lack the reach of, say, Fox and Breitbart News in the US, South Africans’ eager uptake of social media – primarily Facebook and Twitter – offers a more proliferate avenue through which those whose fortunes are threatened, and who lack the ability to channel their arguments through more respectable media channels, can counter fact with falsehood, establishing political and often racial narratives in an attempt to deflect attention from their own moral vacuity.

At last count around 14-million South Africans (over one-quarter of the population) use Facebook, and around 8-million use Twitter – and many, as is the case with almost half of the US population, will use these social media sources for news. A recent article by Oliver Read of the Berlin-based Global Public Policy Institute detailed how troubling the dominance of Facebook in particular is in determining the type of news, much of which is not subject to the kind of fact-checking that “professional journalism” is required to undergo, that dominates the feeds of its users across the world.

Read further argues that “without substantiated, practical information, produced by individuals chiefly animated to play watchdog, citizens are incapable of carrying out informed politics. Facts become relative. Climate change morphs into a hoax cooked up by the Chinese”. Beyond this dilemma, the undermining of editorial integrity at the SABC by the indefatigable Hlaudi Motsoeneng presents a wider risk to an institution which holds a virtual monopoly on the communication of news on a daily basis to almost two-thirds of the country’s population.

One important source of comparative strength in SA compared to the US and UK is arguably the structure of our electoral system. In the 2015 elections Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party secured 12.7% of total votes, and just one seat in parliament (0.2% of the total), thus isolating from the broader establishment a large and evidently frustrated chunk of the electorate. And in the US the antiquated Electoral College system meant that Hillary Clinton lost by a landslide to Trump despite (at last count) having received 2.7-million more popular votes across the country. In SA neither of these outcomes is possible: proportional representation guarantees smaller parties access to provincial and national assemblies, while similarly ensuring that the share of the vote secured correlates with the seats allocated to the party in question.

This means that neither minority sentiments nor the popular mandate can be as easily dismissed in SA as they were in the UK and US. However, the inherent flaw with the South African system is that politicians, elected through their parties and then deployed to positions across the state, are primarily loyal to their political superiors – upon whom their appointment to positions in the state largely depends – rather than the constituencies they are meant to represent and defend. This forges a greater distance between the voters and those they ostensibly vote for, which threatens to breed an even more potent sense of dissatisfaction with the broader establishment.

There are other important nuances that should qualify the points above, too. For one, the country’s proximity to its apartheid past forces a greater discipline on politicians and political parties in pandering to the kinds of intolerance that defined the country’s recent history. During last year’s pronounced spate of anti-foreigner violence, for instance, the ANC government was stung into action in part by accusations by some of its African neighbours that the violence against their citizens in South Africa was particularly reprehensible given the safe haven they had provided to ANC leaders during the struggle against apartheid.

South Africa’s Constitution provides an important bulwark against rampant and politically-sponsored intolerance, too. Indeed, a complaint has been laid against Herman Mashaba for his recent anti-foreigner statements with the SA Human Rights Council, an institution that, together with its “Chapter 9” brethren, is tasked with ensuring that the Constitution’s fundamental principles are adhered to (earlier this year the SAHRC criticised King Zwelithini for his statements against foreigners last year, referring to them as “hurtful and harmful”, though it did not find that they constituted hate speech, or incited violence).

But this alone will not provide absolute protection against the clear embedded threat of a profound potential disruption in South Africa’s political economy if the needs and frustrations of the “ordinary people” (to use the Cambridge English Dictionary’s description of populism) are not placated, and the gulf between the elite and the majority is not somehow narrowed – particularly when these dynamics are layered over a far more fractious and competitive political climate.

There is simply no room to be complacent, to imagine that South Africa’s Trump threat is an external one – based on the kinds of economic and foreign policies that he, once in place as US president, might favour. The underlying frustrations and divides that characterised Trump’s rise are all, almost without exception, present in South Africa’s political and social fabric. And these frictions will be more vigorously exposed by the ANC’s ongoing internal fracturing, and its loss of the monopoly on the national majority it appeared not long ago still to hold. If we ignore the clear warning signs and aloofly dismiss the rumblings of discontent across the country as the stirrings of an ungrateful “radical” fringe, the consequences of our denial and impotence will be serious. DM

Photos by EPA (Trump) and Greg Nicolson/Daily Maverick (Zuma)

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