Maverick Citizen


Swing towards right-wing populism — it’s up to the people to take a stand

Swing towards right-wing populism — it’s up to the people to take a stand
Illustrative image : An MK party member. (Photo: Gallo Images / Fani Mahuntsi) | Former president Jacob Zuma. (Photo: Gallo Images / Darren Stewart) | A screen projects the vote count at the IEC's Results Operations Centre on 30 May 2024. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

The 2024 elections saw a rise in popularity of parties like uMkhonto Wesizwe and the Patriotic Alliance. The growing influence of right-wing movements in South Africa could threaten democracy.

Many South Africans and political analysts were surprised by the outcome of the 2024 elections, including the meteoric rise of former president Jacob Zuma’s uMkhonto Wesizwe party (MK party). 

The MK party won 58 seats in the National Assembly, making it the third-largest party represented in Parliament, an unexpected feat for a party formed only six months before millions of South Africans went to the polls.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Elections dashboard

A trend that emerged from what has been dubbed a watershed election was not only the rise of parties that espouse policies that contradict the constitutional democracy that South Africa was built on, but also how these parties grew in popularity in the polls, creating a groundswell of right-wing populism.

Aside from the MK party, the Patriotic Alliance (PA) has also enjoyed increased support from voters. When the PA first made its foray into the political landscape and contested its first election in 2014, the party garnered just 13,263 votes. In 2019, the PA’s support dropped drastically. But in this year’s polls, the party managed to amass 330,425 votes, making the PA the sixth biggest party in the National Assembly.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Patriotic Alliance has big ambitions after surprise showing at the polls

The rise of the right

According to political analyst Dale McKinley, the rise of right-wing and anti-constitutional ideologies in South African politics did not occur in a vacuum, but was a result of the failure of liberal elites to deliver on economic growth and job creation, leading to a shift towards right-wing positions among poor and working-class people.

“Essentially, what’s happened is the majority of people, particularly poor and working-class people, their lives have gotten worse over the last 20 years, and as a result, we see people turning towards more right-wing positions,” Mckinley said.

“And when we say right-wing, we mean, for example, those that are dominant ethnic-associated positions where you sort of retreat into an ethnic laager, or a very narrow nationalism… so, for example, blaming foreign migrants and others for all your problems and pushing a sort of false patriotism and narrow nationalism.”

Speaking to Daily Maverick, Prof Sandy Liebenberg said the government’s failure to address the deep socioeconomic inequalities in South Africa and deliver a better life for all provided ammunition for some parties to attract disillusioned voters.

“A lot of this sort of rhetoric that parties like the MK party, the Patriotic Alliance, and Action SA spout are exactly designed to capture voters who are disillusioned and alienated from the current constitutional regime, and that is why it was always so important to have socioeconomic rights and land rights as part of the Constitution, because they speak to people’s material conditions of life.

“But it must be translated into effective laws, policies and governance. I’m afraid the ruling party and other parties in provinces just haven’t successfully delivered on that promise,” Liebenberg said.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Look Left, Look Right: What does ‘progressive’ mean in the coalition talks?

McKinley said the rise of right-wing ideologies in South Africa differed from the rise of the right evident in other countries, as more traditional authorities had a role, particularly in rural areas.

This was evident with the rise of the MK party and the support it received in some rural areas of KwaZulu Natal, which has much to do with the continued influence of traditional authorities.

“Also, what’s different in our context is the deep, historical, racial and class differences in our country, which have not been dealt with as a result of 200/300 years of apartheid [and colonialism]. So not every country has this kind of history, which provides fertile ground for the demagogic populace to make false promises,” he said.

“Let’s take the Patriotic Alliance, for example, going back to the sort of coloured nationalism, secession, a very apartheid mentality and thinking, which takes advantage of the racial and class differentiations in our country, and then uses them for those kinds of purposes.”

Rekgotsofetse Chikane, political commentator and lecturer at the Wits School of Governance, said categorising parties in South Africa as right or left was particularly tricky because of the extent of poverty, inequality, gender-based violence and unemployment.

“So, when I think about MK’s influence in the sense of feudalistic ideas of government, it is definitely rightward thinking. But in terms of how it’s approaching social development, or at least how it is proposing it would approach social and economic development, it’s actually quite left,” Chikane said. 

A look at the MK party’s manifesto echoes Chikane’s observation. The party proposes nationalising several institutions and resources, including the SA Reserve Bank, large banks, insurance companies and water and renewable energy. 

The MK party has also set its sights on introducing a Basic Income Grant and free education and supports implementing the National Health Insurance. These are all policy proposals that sit on the left of the spectrum.

However, the MK party wants to hold a referendum on the death penalty, install unelected traditional leaders and tribal kings and queens in Parliament, ship pregnant teens off to Robben Island and scrap the Constitution in favour of parliamentary sovereignty. Certainly more right-wing than progressive.

Chikane said that while parliamentary sovereignty is not unheard of and is present in countries like the UK, he does not believe it is the best fit.

Paraphrasing political philosopher John Rawls, Chikane said, “The Constitution ensures that the worst off in society are treated the best by the state. That the state isn’t used in a manner only to benefit the rich, and that when you use the Constitution, it actively benefits the most marginalised of society.”

Turning to the saying, “You can’t have a constitution without a culture of constitutionalism,” Liebenberg said that calls for scrapping the Constitution eroded the fundamental values South Africa was built on.

“It delegitimates the constitutional project and undermines the fundamental values of the Constitution, of equality, dignity and so forth. It also is a false promise. Clamping down on immigrants, sending young pregnant teens to Robben Island and even having a system of parliamentary sovereignty is not going to solve the fundamental structural issues of poverty and inequality, which I think most people are really concerned about. It has deep implications for our constitutional democracy going forward,” Liebenberg said.

Read more in Daily Maverick: MK party manifesto and Zuma 2.0 — nationalise it all and scrap the Constitution

Populist groundswell 

There have been concerns within the LGBTQIA+ community that same-sex marriages and Chapter 9 institutions prohibiting discrimination could be in jeopardy.

During an MK party gathering in Pietermaritzburg in January, it was reported that Zuma told the crowd: “If we win as a party, we will change the repressive laws which are anti-democratic”, referring to laws that protect LGBTQIA+ communities.

Despite parties like MK, the PA and Action SA, which have promised to introduce policies and laws that contradict the Constitution, McKinley cautioned against believing the fear-mongering emanating from MK supporters as the party did not have that kind of power.

However, if support for right-wing, more conservative ideologies grows in South Africa, a grim picture of the nation’s future emerges.

According to McKinley, this would include attacking democratic institutions and suppressing dissent, in addition to long-term consequences like undermining democracy and using violence to marginalise opposition.

“We saw this in our country during the years of Zuma. We also saw it with other presidents within the ANC, but to a lesser extent. Attacking institutions of democracy, basically trying to neuter the judiciary, for example, trying to pack it with people that would agree with you, delegitimising any independent institution that could question your authority within the state.”

The way forward

Ensuring the constitutional project continues in South Africa is of the utmost importance, and, according to Liebenberg, it starts on the societal level.

“We need to put the vision of the Constitution forward very publicly, advocate for it, and take much more serious action to hold our elected officials accountable for those socioeconomic promises in the Constitution.”

Liebenberg said that while it was not the only solution, schools needed programmes that taught constitutional literacy and governance.

From the government’s perspective, Liebenberg said a developmental strategy was needed to resolve poverty, unemployment and inequality.

“We’ve had austerity policies that have left key socioeconomic programmes underfunded, including at the local government level. The government needs to relook at our economic policy and development strategy because the current, very growth-led model has not delivered.”

According to McKinley, mobilisation and active citizenry are key to countering the rise of populist rhetoric.

“The only real antidote to this is the people themselves. It is mobilisation, it is this active citizenry, an involved citizenry that refuses to be silenced, that stands up for what they believe in.

“After all, our Constitution is not the property of a political party. It’s not the property of a liberation movement – it is the property of everyone,” he said. DM


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