South Africa


The place of the popular and the populist

The place of the popular and the populist

Commentators refer continually to the wave of populism sweeping Europe, the United States and some countries in the global south. South Africa is not immune to this and it is important that we understand what populism means and that it is not the same as ‘the popular’. We need to arm ourselves against demagoguery and any obstacles to exercising our political choices on a rational basis.

This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website:

It is common in political commentary — locally and internationally — to treat the popular and populist as one. It is important that they be distinguished, for they have overlapping, but also independent qualities. It is also necessary to unpack the qualities of the popular insofar as these may enrich democratic life, if it is understood as part of enhancing agency by the citizenry.

Populism can take right- and left-wing forms, in the case of the former veering close to or sometimes being legitimately classified as a species of fascism. Despite having this fascist character, in some situations they draw in communists and other sections of the left, as in contemporary Philippines.

The populist draws on people’s disillusionment with politics, in our time, mainly with liberal democracy. Populism tends to play into the fears and existing tensions between people.

In the case of some countries, like Brazil, the populists draw on the failure of the left (the Partido dos Trabalhadores-PT — or Workers’ Party) to live up to their promise or to continue with the programmes for which many loved the PT (“love” being a word used by one Brazilian analyst, which is akin to the familial relationship that many have had towards the ANC in South Africa).

It is one of the paradoxes of Brazil, that at the time when, according to polls, the most popular potential presidential candidate, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva — popularly known as “Lula”— is in jail (after a contentious conviction for corruption) Jair Bolsonaro, the person likely to be elected as the next Brazilian president, is not simply a right-wing populist but a fascist.

As with populism in general, Bolsonaro appeals to the longings of people to be rid of self-serving and corrupt politicians, not because he is likely to do this or that he is “clean”, that is, free of corruption himself, but that he knows which slogans resonate with people.(See why the radical right is winning here and for a similar phenomenon here in India under Narendra Modi, and a longer version here.

In our own case, the EFF is populist insofar as it articulates appeals that resonate with the poor and with those who believe they are getting a raw deal with government and the economy (similar factors that prevailed in the rise of US President Donald Trump, Bolsonaro and others).

In the Jacob Zuma period, the EFF did not restrict itself to enunciating slogans, but also acted out their programmes of the time in a way that resonated with many people, notably with the slogan “pay back the money”.

They took a series of steps — including objections in Parliament, litigation and organised demonstrations, in alliance with others, in order to realise their goals. This had real democratic effects, contributing significantly towards the isolation and removal of Zuma.

With the departure of Zuma from the presidency, however, the EFF has continued to advance demands and slogans that have a popular appeal, in relation to the land and the banks, for example. But characteristic of populism, these are not articulated as part of a realisable programme to achieve a more democratic political order and an economy that is more responsive to the needs of all our peoples. They sometimes have considerable shock value, but do not represent steps towards achieving goals that can benefit the poor, whom they claim to champion.

Also, unlike when there was a clear line of division between those supporting Zuma’s removal and those who did not, the EFF (like the ANC) now blurs the meaning of siding with the poor, by making overtures to people like King Goodwill Zwelithini, who is at the centre of continuing land dispossession in KwaZulu-Natal, while the EFF preaches “expropriation without compensation” and fidelity to the Freedom Charter.

There is a generalised designation of those to whom the EFF seeks to appeal, primarily black people and the poor, though it claims to also be non-racial and has members from all population groups.

But, characteristic of populism, there is also a stigmatisation of some who are seen as obstacles to its goals. In this regard, the EFF has focused on politicians and civil servants who happen to be Indian, in particular Minister Pravin Gordhan and Treasury Deputy Director-General Ismail Momoniat, both associated with cleaning up state entities and eliminating irregularity and fraud.

They are attacked as Indians who wish to undermine Africans. This appears to be intended as a diversion from what Gordhan and Momoniat are doing in their work, to curb looting the fiscus.

But in some cases, loose statements are made about the Indian population in general as being responsible for the ill treatment of Africans. Does the EFF support resolving the “national question”, that is finding a way of uniting all our people on an equitable basis, or does it see some population groups as falling outside of that notion of the nation?

Certainly, its statements do not fill one with confidence in their intentions. (Likewise, the DA’s immigration platform is a populist appeal, relying on existing fears and tensions, and that is also antagonistic to building unity between people in the country).

Tensions between Indians and Africans, especially in KwaZulu-Natal where most Indians reside, has a long and sometimes violent past, but it also has a history where mature leaders did not feed into any cheap populist point-scoring, but sought to build links between these communities.

This was the task that Chief Albert Luthuli and Dr Monty Naicker set themselves after the outbreak of violence in 1949. That worked for some years. The late Professor Ben Magubane told me of ANC members emerging from a rally in Durban in this period and found police harassing Indian hawkers. The ANC members formed a cordon around the hawkers, demonstrating that the cause of the Indian poor and the African masses were one. That is clearly not the message of the EFF.

Many of the EFF’s leadership, notably in the days when it was still part of the ANCYL, prior to the Nkandla period, were involved in dodgy deals, which led to prosecution, which may not be finally resolved. That some of this related to taxation, was in the period of Pravin Gordhan’s tenure as Minister of Finance and related to the work of SARS, explains part of the enmity towards him and some of his colleagues.

Equally, it is now clear that the interest shown by the EFF in opposing the VBS bank being placed under curatorship was not innocent and may well have had something to do with Brian Shivambu being a beneficiary of looting of the bank and possibly also enriching his brother, Floyd, the EFF deputy president, and also the EFF itself. (See Pauli van Wyk).

That is not yet legally proved, though the report by advocate Terry Motau was incomplete, temporarily withholding two volumes from the public, that contained further evidence that might lead to prosecutions.

Despite that the EFF reason for opposing Zuma was purported to be related to State Capture, the organisation has in recent times also risen to the defence of civil servants who have in some cases been identified with State Capture, who they allege are being victimised by the “reign of terror” of Pravin Gordhan.

It has also taken steps to side with Tom Moyane, of whom evidence in the Judge Robert Nugent commission appears to show, rendered the South African Revenue Services ineffective in addressing tax evasion by very high earners and allegedly put his office at the service of a range of corrupt elements and forms of State Capture.

The EFF has itself admitted receiving funding from dubious sources so that it is partly on the side of legality, but also sufficiently close to the underworld to benefit from its resources.

But the current ANC is also not averse to populism. It is, at this time, a shadow of its former self (although some of us who were in the struggle may romanticise what it was in the past and be blind to some of the flaws that were present earlier).

It has become depoliticised and in its quest to remain in power sometimes succumbs to populism. This was seen in the adoption, without any planning and preparation of funding, of the free higher education announcement by former president Jacob Zuma and the call for a constitutional amendment around “expropriation without compensation”, adopted to avoid the Ramaphosa supporters being outsmarted by the EFF, and within the ANC, in order to avoid being outflanked by the Zumaites’ call for radical economic transformation.

As indicated before, there is no need to change the Constitution in order to effect land redistribution. In its present form or with further amendments, expropriation without compensation is not a magic fix for the failure of land policies.

There needs to be political will to achieve that. Far from changing the Constitution on expropriation being a viable programme for addressing the land question, it is an ANC variant of EFF populism on land.

The need to return to the popular

For much of its history the ANC was not a hegemonic African nationalist force. It was only in the 1950s that the ANC became hegemonic and a popular organisation drawing in members and supporters on a mass basis.

In earlier years it had been outflanked by the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (the ICU) and the Garveyites, which were mass-based and popular organisations. (See Raymond Suttner “African nationalism” in Peter Vale, Lawrence Hamilton and Estelle Prinsloo (eds), South African intellectual traditions, (UKZN Press, 2014),121-145, Helen Bradford, A taste of freedom. The ICU in rural South Africa, 1924-1930. Johannesburg, Ravan Press, 1987 and Robert T Vinson, The Americans are coming! Dreams of African American Liberation in Segregationist South Africa. Athens, OH, Ohio University Press, 2012).

That is not to say there were no popular trends in the ANC over this period, for it did engage in some mass campaigns and acts of defiance, as early as 1919. (See Raymond Suttner, “The African National Congress centenary: a long and difficult journey”, International Affairs, 88, 4, (2012), 719-738 and Peter Limb, The ANC The ANC’s Early Years: Nation, Class and Place in South Africa Before 1940. Unisa Press, Pretoria, 2010.)

But in the 1950s the Congress Alliance (The ANC, Indian Congresses, Coloured Peoples Organisation, Congress of Democrats and de facto, also the underground SACP) brought together a range of people, under the ANC’s leadership, but representing all population groups, classes and strata. (On the Congress Alliance, the most authoritative work is Sylvia Neame’s three-volume work, The Congress Movement: ICU, ANC, CP and Congress Alliance, HSRC Press, 2015).

Among the products of this period was an incipient withdrawal of allegiance to the state in the 1952 Defiance campaign, and the Congress of the People (COP) campaign leading to the adoption of the Freedom Charter. It must be stressed that the COP was an organised campaign, not a single event held in Kliptown on 25 and 26 June 1955.

What was characteristic of this period was that documents did not simply emerge from wise men and women, but involved mass organisation, cadres listening, learning and teaching, throughout the country, as they gathered demands for incorporation in the Freedom Charter. (See Raymond Suttner and Jeremy Cronin, 50 Years of the Freedom Charter, Unisa Press, Pretoria, 2006, Ismail Vadi, The Congress of the People and Freedom Charter, Jacana Media, 2015 and Raymond Suttner, “The Freedom Charter @60”).

This entire process was obviously popular, not populist. It was based on mutual respect between those engaging with communities and the local people.

The level of resistance to apartheid increased, with notable challenges to authorities in many towns and cities and significant risings in the rural areas in the late 1950s. But the apartheid regime had a sense of impunity, as evidenced in the killings at Sharpeville. The ANC and PAC were declared illegal in 1960, those who were not imprisoned went underground or into exile and also launched armed struggle.

Open popular struggle was not viable for illegal organisations in this period, though it started to re-emerge with the rise of the black consciousness movement in the late 1960s, militant trade unions in 1973 in Durban, the Soweto uprising of 1976 and broad mass popular action in the late 1970s. These were precursors to the formation of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in 1983.

The UDF was not a membership, but an affiliate-based organisation, co-ordinating hundreds of organisations. This period saw the return to grassroots organisation, drawing on local as well as national grievances and demands, organising in rural and urban areas, on the basis of a range of sectoral interests, represented by the diverse UDF affiliates.

The UDF was both national and local in its focus, for its affiliates were not members of a central organisation, but united over common national goals and also pursuing distinct objectives as teachers, students, community organisations known as “civics”, trade unions, sports bodies, professionals and small businesses, among others.

The level of resistance grew more and more intense, as did the repression with which the state responded. In the mid 1980s the UDF and its affiliates heeded the ANC’s call to “make apartheid unworkable and South Africa ungovernable!”

Police and various puppets of the regime were driven out of townships and again, with guidance from the ANC, many areas saw the establishment of “elementary organs of people’s power”, where locals organised themselves on a street, block and area basis, helping control criminality, cleaning up their areas and ensuring that where there were boycotts, these did not result from intimidation.

There were abuses, notably when much of the leadership was arrested in the states of emergency, leading to youth being in control and the presence and infiltration of gangsters. That does not detract from the importance of the popular in this period, the emergence of mass democratic organisations organised both on a sectoral basis but also in relation to national goals.

This period has lessons for the present, notably in relation to how we conceive our democratic life, whether or not it is simply periodic voting or whether we understand it to include ongoing popular involvement. To that I will return in a later contribution. DM

Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. He is a visiting professor and strategic advisor to the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg and emeritus professor at Unisa. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His prison memoir Inside Apartheid’s Prison was reissued with a new introduction in 2017. He blogs at and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner


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