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Populism is a rising threat and poses a clear and present danger to Africa – authors warn

Populism is a rising threat and poses a clear and present danger to Africa – authors warn
From left: Research director at Brenthurst Foundation Ray Hartley. | Member of parliament in Harare East Constituency Tendai Biti. | Daily Maverick senior journalist Rebecca Davis. (Photos: Supplied)

Populism as a rising global phenomenon is a danger to democracies around the world, from its extremist Latin American roots to liberation movements in Africa and the rise of a new European nationalism.

Populist leaders have “turned democracies to coercion, capture and corruption”, Tendai Biti, Zimbabwean opposition party member of parliament, told a Daily Maverick webinar on Wednesday.

This sparked “social instability, economic catastrophe and authoritarian repression”, and countries with extreme crime rates, such as South Africa, are more prone to attracting these populist leaders, he said.

Biti was speaking on the recently published book by the Brenthurst Foundation, “In The Name of the People: How populism is rewiring the world”.

Daily Maverick senior journalist Rebecca Davis facilitated a conversation about rising worldwide populism with two of the co-authors — research director at the Brenthurst Foundation, Ray Hartley, and Biti, who is the MP for Harare East. 

Daily Maverick previously reported on the South African Police Service confirming that the numbers of murders and sexual offences have been steadily escalating in the country.

Read more in Daily Maverick:Violent crime is soaring in South Africa and retribution isn’t working — it’s time for restorative justice

“This is a warning to South Africa,” Biti said. “The threat of populism needs to be addressed in a logical manner.”

The issue can begin to be addressed through the public education of what populism is, and in what contexts it can occur, he said.

How does populism arise?

Socioeconomic issues are the “bread and butter” of populist movements because pressing public grievances in a society can lead to extremist reactions, said Hartley.

Grievances, often perpetuated by economic downfalls in Africa and Latin America, can become the “fatal ground” for a “so-called messiah” to rise up, with the “promise of delivery and salvation” because of inequality, poverty and unemployment extremes, Biti agreed.

Racist and oppressive governments with histories of colonisation — sparking liberation movements in Africa — have caused widespread support of such a “messiah” to take power, allowing them to win the majority of the vote, Hartley said.

No one can contest the grievances, he said, because they become the “centrepiece” of society when the “messiah” eventually takes power.

“Populism doesn’t come out of thin air. It is made possible because a substantial section of a society is suffering in some way, and it leads to the questioning of the democratic system. There is always a legitimate foundation of populist campaigns because they come from genuine grievances.”

This was shown by Donald Trump, Hartley said, because he was able to use America’s “Rust Belt” and decline in jobs to build a constituency. But when he won the presidency, he did not solve the problem by creating new jobs or bridging the extreme wealth gap, but rather caused chaos and disorder.

The problem starts when populists begin their role as formal leaders because they can’t actually solve the problems they claim they will solve, he said. So, they turn to State Capture and corruption, “hollowing out democratic institutions”.

They tend to “substitute themselves to represent the wants and needs of the people… They become the people”, said Biti.

“They become larger-than-life characters, like Trump,” Hartley said. 

“They personify power, but they do not take accountability for the truth and they make gigantic promises they cannot keep. This lays the foundation for their own demise toward dictatorship and autocracy.”

Populism in Africa

In many African countries, where economies were created to save Western metropoles through colonisation, massive economic systems are often controlled by only a few people, Biti said.

About 95% of people are unemployed or impoverished in Zimbabwe, he said. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: “ ‘Life in Zim is worse,’ say migrants returning to South Africa

With the lack of democracy, the manifestation of populism is seen in Zimbabwe’s history of liberation movements. Their power stems from mass violence and aggression.

“Power comes from guns, not from the people. The mindset of these movements is ‘if I can’t have it, then no one else can have it’,” Biti said.

Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations

The power of liberation movements is perpetuated by armed forces of the state, seen in many other African countries as well, he said, such as Mali and Côte D’Ivoire.

As seen in South Africa, the roots of xenophobia are evident in elections, Biti added. There are always one or two politicians or parties who successfully rise up on an opportunistic platform of xenophobia, advocating for the closure of borders, with strong anti-immigration policies.

Read more in Daily Maverick:The rise of xenophobia is South Africa’s road to ruin

The issue of xenophobia is an “arsenal for populism in South Africa”, Biti warned.

Beyond xenophobia, there are plenty of other possible grievances in South Africa that populists could latch on to, because “there will always be a pressing grievance in a society to take advantage of”.

How can populism be avoided?

Biti laid out six ways that populism can begin to be thwarted, starting first at a grassroots level with educating the public about the political phenomenon.

Second, societies need to focus on maintaining and building strong government institutions.

“A strong judiciary. A strong parliament. Anti-corruption commissions. Human rights commissions. These are key,” he said.

Third, constitutionalism and a functioning rule of law are critical.

“An independent electoral management system delivers security — protection of the voter and the vote itself.”

Fourth, a functioning economy is necessary. 

“Nationalism is a byproduct of grievances, largely from economic failures from inequality, corruption, exclusion.”

Fifth, globalisation provides a “deterrence to extremism”.

The maintenance of strong regional bodies, a strong African Union and strong national and international law holds people accountable, he explained.

Sixth, and most importantly, citizens must maintain hold of their power and agency, through activism, voting and voicing their grievances.

“Many of us live in countries where representative democracies normally exist — we must take responsibility for the power we have.”

South Africa has “successfully resisted populism so far because its recent history of the authoritarian, oppressive society of apartheid is still fresh, and there is popular objection to anything moving in that direction,” Biti added.

“No one wants to go back to the state of emergency and security force oppression that South Africa has suffered through, and that outweighs the economic grievances for now,” he said.

But regardless, populism is an escalating worldwide danger that requires South Africa’s attention and caution, said Biti.  DM

Anna Southwell is in South Africa on an internship with Daily Maverick as part of a group from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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