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Populism as a winning card — the final weekend speeches point to parties’ pressure points

Populism as a winning card — the final weekend speeches point to parties’ pressure points
Illustrative Image: Cyril Ramaphosa speaks to supporters during the ANC's Siyanqoba Rally at FNB Stadium in Johannesburg on 25 May 2024. (Photo: Chris McGrath / Getty Images) | Supporters wait for President Cyril Ramaphosa to speak during the ANC's final rally at FNB Stadium on 25 May 2024. (Photo: Chris McGrath / Getty Images) | Julius Malema, addresses the crowd at the EFF's final election rally in Polokwane on 25 May 2024. (Photo: EPA-EFE/STR) | EFF supporters wait for the arrival of party leader Julius Malema for a May Day rally in Alexandra, Johannesburg, on 1 May 2019. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Kim Ludbrook)

The campaign speeches by political leaders this weekend were revealing, in that they showed what they are most afraid of. Their final messages, often the most important of the campaign, also reveal much about what the leaders think of voters. And the speeches by President Cyril Ramaphosa and Julius Malema show the political calculations they are now making.

The weekend before our elections often sees the country’s political leaders at their final and desperate stage of campaigning. There is no reason to hold back and, often, a definitive desire to be heard through the noise of the final days of campaigning.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s speech at FNB Stadium in Johannesburg on Saturday was the climax to the ANC’s most populist campaign ever.

He said, “The cost of living must also be brought down …that is why we are taking steps to make everyday life more affordable for our people, the unemployed and the middle class. We are addressing needs like food, housing, healthcare and wages.” 

However, there is very little evidence that this is happening and poverty in South Africa has increased since Ramaphosa came into office in 2018.

He also promised, “We will progressively implement a basic income grant for unemployed people based on the SRD [Social Relief of Distress] grant”, which is now R370 per month.

His comments follow an ANC statement earlier last week, in response to a scorecard published by the Universal Basic Income Grant Coalition of organisations about SA political parties’ promises. 

In that statement, the party said: “The ANC is committed to financing the basic income grant through progressive mechanisms to ensure financial sustainability and equitable redistribution. We will explore options such as new progressive tax measures, including a social security tax, while maximising fiscal space by effectively utilising existing resources. The ANC is open to considering more diverse funding sources and a faster movement towards universality.”

At face value, this suggests the ANC may examine some kind of new tax, or even what has often been called a “wealth tax” to fund a basic income grant.

Of course, in a country where so many live in abject poverty, this would be a huge vote-grabber.

But it would not necessarily change anything. The ANC and Ramaphosa say this grant will be based on the SRD grant and that, as Ramaphosa put it on Saturday, “We want our economy to grow, and as our economy grows, we will have the capacity to provide more and more support and assistance to our people.”

Perhaps even more revealing was what appeared to be an attack on the DA, when Ramaphosa said, “In these times of hardship … it is outrageous that some parties are saying we should scrap the minimum wage … this is an attack on workers and our efforts to build a fairer society.” 

Spectre of the past

This was clearly a response to the DA’s manifesto proposal that it would not increase the minimum wage any further and would allow it to be eroded by inflation.

The spectre of the past may also have been hovering over Ramaphosa’s statement about National Health Insurance that it was “unacceptable that some of the privileged in our society want us to continue with a deeply uneven healthcare system that has apartheid features”.

Ramaphosa addressed the DA more directly, saying, “Those who burn the flag, we will not allow them to reverse the achievements of our democracy. There is a political party that sought to burn the flag of our country and we say, ‘Down with burning the flag of South Africa down.’”

Considering that it does not appear that the ANC’s major threat in this election comes from the DA, it is intriguing that he spent as much time as he did on this party.

Often in politics, the target of an attack reveals who the attacker is most scared of, or who they believe they could lose votes to (this is why the DA and Rise Mzansi have been criticising each other in recent weeks).

For the ANC to focus on the DA like this suggests it is worried about the DA.

However, it is more likely that the ANC is trying to remind its voters about apartheid and its role in ending it. In other words, this is about using the DA as a reminder of the past, rather than any fear of the DA

While much of Ramaphosa’s speech was populist in tone, it did not necessarily indicate a major change in policy.

However, another comment he made, about the situation in Gaza, may spark a major debate.

While speaking about the situation there he used the phrase, “Free Palestine. From the river to the sea.”

This phrase is viewed by Israelis and many Jewish people as meaning the state of Israel should not exist. Palestinians see it as a liberation slogan. (AP provides a good explainer.) 

While this comment is unlikely to be judged to be hate speech or prejudiced, it typifies Ramaphosa’s lurch to populism. There was no need to say this — it will probably create unnecessary tension and, while he was speaking as a political leader, he is also a head of state.

All of this suggests that Ramaphosa and the ANC believe they have something to fear in this election.

The Gauteng premier, Panyaza Lesufi, also spoke at the event on Saturday. He claimed the ANC had been campaigning “against radio hosts” and “TV stations”.

This reveals paranoia.

Meanwhile, in Polokwane, Julius Malema’s speech at the EFF’s rally in the Peter Mokaba Stadium showed what he believes could be a political weakness.

He addressed the issue of illegal immigration, stating that his party’s policy was not to allow people from Africa into South Africa with no regulation.

Read more in Daily Maverick: 2024 elections

He said, “There is no border that will be opened immediately … it will be gradual … they will have to do it gradually.” 

But he did not move away from his party’s overall philosophy, saying: “We are committed to pan-Africanism. We do not encourage illegal and undocumented immigration … everyone in the country must be documented.” 

There is plenty of evidence of a rise in feeling against migrants, or of simple xenophobia. To his credit, Malema has often campaigned against this. He may now be concerned that he will lose votes on this issue to Gayton McKenzie’s Patriotic Alliance.

This election will be remembered for several changes to our politics, for the introduction of coalitions in national and provincial government and for structural changes to the relationships between parties.

But it also marks the beginning of a new era of populism as parties respond to pressure from voters. DM


Daily Maverick has closed comments on all elections articles for the next two weeks. While we do everything in our power to ensure deliberately false, misleading and hateful commentary does not get published on our site, it’s simply not possible for our small team to have sight of every comment. Given the political dynamics of the moment, we cannot risk malignant actors abusing our platform to manipulate and mislead others. We remain committed to providing you with a platform for dynamic conversation and exchange and trust that you understand our need for circumspection at this sensitive time for our country.

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