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ANC and Co are playing with fire — populist politicking will always end in tears

ANC and Co are playing with fire — populist politicking will always end in tears
Illustrative image | Sources: Molofo, Soweto, residents protest over lack of electricity. (Photo: Gallo Images / Fani Mahuntsi) | EFF leader Julius Malema. (Photo: Gallo Images / Papi Morake) | Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi. (Photo: Gallo Images / Frennie Shivambu) | Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Alon Skuy)

With political parties finding it ever harder to attract trust from South Africans ahead of next year’s polls, there’s an emerging trend of the more panicky among them turning to the predictable safety of populist policies.

In particular, it appears that, amid desperate attempts to retain power, the ANC is now trying to use measures it’s never used before. It is not difficult to see how this fatal attraction to populism will only grow in the next few months. However, there are limits to how far populist measures can really go in South Africa, if only because many voters are now too disillusioned for them to work.

There can be no doubt as to the disastrous long-term impact populist promises can have. Even now, some activists in Soweto base their demands for free electricity on what they say were promises made by ANC leaders in 1993, showing the election sloganeering’s immensely damaging long tail effect.

Last week, the ANC in Ekurhuleni promised to support a budget proposed by the EFF, but only if it agreed to write off the arrears of residents who owe billions for electricity. It would essentially mean the metro would lose out on R20-billion that is currently owed, a seriously damaging, even if popular, demand to make.

Last year, Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi suggested he would support a similar write-off for money owed by Soweto residents to Eskom.

This year, he has announced programmes involving “crime wardens” to patrol communities to fight crime. This means that people who are essentially armed with uniforms alone and have only two months’ worth of training now patrol communities where they are likely to encounter life-endangering threats.

Lesufi, of course, has a long history with populism. As long ago as 2004, he led a public campaign accusing a Taiwanese brother and sister of forcing a teenage girl to have sex with a dog. In the end, they were acquitted after animal experts explained how the claims were biologically impossible.

Lesufi is not the only person in the ANC who appears to pander to populist campaigning.

As our national and local problems compound and feelings of frustration grow more intense, our very own government is not defending immigrants against xenophobic groups — it has actually joined other groups in trying to move against foreign nationals.

The decision by the Cabinet and Home Affairs Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaled to end the Zimbabwe Exemption Permits may be an example of this. There is no evidence that hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans living here under the exemption will leave when it expires, and the weakness of our government may be exposed.

Motsoaledi is pressing ahead nevertheless, claiming that NGOs opposed to his moves are funded by foreigners.

At the same time, smaller parties like the Patriotic Alliance are also making massive promises.

One can expect that at next year’s elections there will be strong competition among the parties for populist pedestal(s).

However, there are also signs that this kind of strategy does not work as well as hoped by many of South Africa’s political parties, and that some will choose to avoid going this route.

Ideas of the populist kind

There is a long history of populist promises and ideas in our politics. Sometimes these have come from the ANC and sometimes from the DA.

As early as 2004, the then DA leader Tony Leon suggested the Constitutional Court should revisit its ban on the death penalty, going against years of his party’s political history. The party also once seemed to suggest that SA needed a harder line on immigration. Both these measures went against the party’s liberal history and did not appear to attract voters.

The ANC, of course, has made promise after promise.

And then there is the EFF. It has made perhaps the most outlandish vows regarding the most emotive issue in South Africa — land. These vows came thick and fast, with their roots all the way back to Malema’s disastrous leadership of the ANC Youth League.

Despite screaming many a fantasy, many times, Malema and Co have not been able to move past the usual one-third-of-a-third that is somehow often reserved for the extremists in modern democracies.

There are many reasons for this seeming failure.

One is that a huge distrust has taken over the electorate. For years, voters have been promised a “better life for all”. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in promises to improve the economy and create jobs.

From at least 2009, as Jacob Zuma campaigned for the presidency, the party has said it will create millions of jobs. And yet, as everyone has seen, it has failed to do this, despite repeating this promise again and again.

There are other problems with populism in our heavily contested environment.

For example, the easiest promise for the ANC to make ahead of next year’s elections is to implement a basic income grant, surely a guaranteed vote-getter.

From a purely political point of view, if the ANC were to do this it could inspire another party to come up with a bigger grant promise, and at a higher level. As a result, it may be a useless tool for a political party, particularly if you are the political party in power that will then have to implement it.

There are other populist promises that have the same problem.

Promising action against foreign nationals, for example, could just lead to a race to the bottom, to see who is the most xenophobic party.

There may also be another structural problem, in that it is often in the nature of populism to make very specific promises to a very particular constituency. But the route to electoral success in our system means that you have to get votes from across different constituencies. This makes it harder for parties to attract support from a diverse range of voting blocks.

This can also lead to discord within parties. For example, proposals by some in the ANC to write off electricity debt or to deal more harshly with foreign nationals could well lead to huge divisions in the party. Diverse groups have diverse views on issues like these, making it harder to formulate policy.

All of this suggests that while there is likely to be a huge temptation for more populism, there are limits to how far this can go. And that making populist promises could in fact harbour big dangers. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • William Stucke says:

    This is an important subject, but you are hedging your bets so much here Stepen, that you aren’t really saying anything useful.

  • Bryan Shepstone says:

    Just because it doesn’t make sense won’t stop them doing it.

  • Niki Moore says:

    Unfortunately, populism in South Africa does work. Our voters vote with their hearts, not their heads. If we had pragmatic voters, the ANC would have been a distant memory. But most South Africans view their political party like their soccer team – you don’t abandon them just because they lose matches……

  • Katharine Ambrose says:

    The populist slogan often proves to be incitement to extremism. Eg a promise to deal with illegal immigrants will quickly be taken as support for mob violence against foreigners. In a country sceptical of empty promises people will eagerly respond to calls to action

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