Defend Truth


Making sense of national populism in South Africa


Saliem Fakir is Executive Director of the African Climate Change Foundation

While poverty, land and inequality may be the underlying cause for friction in South Africa, the rhetoric of ‘us’ and ‘them’ zeroes in on another group as holding back progress and advancement, using white monopoly capital, the professional classes and the intelligentsia, banks, the media and all other scapegoats and culprits one can find.

There is a famous paragraph in The Holy Family where Marx himself recognised that great historical ends are not achieved by debating what the poor or disenfranchised want, but by recognising that their being is affected by a historical moment for which they are ripe to serve an end.

And the means to an end, whatever it is, becomes a necessity.

This lesson is not limited to the politics of the left, but as we can perceptively see today, seizing the historical moment is becoming a new playbook for more organised populists around the world, whether it is in South America, North America, Europe or South Africa. They can be right or left in orientation but their one aspiration is to completely subvert the current liberal model, which is the central edifice of Western democracies.

Perhaps, we have been too blurry-eyed in our conception of who is right and who is left in the growth of national populism.

This is why it is hard to comprehend Italian populists — if you simply use a left/right lens orientation — given the political coalition that exists between the centre-right party, the League, and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement party.

The latter cannot be easily characterised as either left or right, but both parties are asserting a form of nationalism founded on a strong ticket of anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic policies. By extension it may be more useful to view the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), Black First Land First (BLF) — with varying degrees of racial chauvinism — as national populists rather than left or right organisations.

Populists seek to turn the old order on its head and so we must too turn our concepts of left/right wings on their head. Nationalists’ aspirations easily grow a chimaera of left/right policy fusions (and even violence is at times a useful means of virtuous terror) where the emphasis is on the identity of the group rather than its ideology.

Geoff Mann’s new book on the economist John Maynard Keynes notes:

The contradiction between liberty of the one and the interests of the whole is a signature problem of modernity.”

One may even extend that observation and ask whether the interests of the whole is better served through a cosmopolitan ethos founded on notions of individual liberty or its riposte: Where one group uses its racial, religious or ethnic identity and majority to resolve this contradiction between “liberty of one and the interests of the whole”?

In a similar vein John Mearsheimer, a realist theorist of internationalist politics, recently wrote a substantive critique of liberalism, arguing that one of the failures of liberal ideology is that:

The taproot of the problem of liberalism’s radical individualism and its emphasis on utility maximisation is that it places virtually no emphasis on the importance of fostering a sense of community and caring about fellow citizens.”

Mearsheimer argues that identity politics and nationalism are a far more profound political force than the defence of individual liberty or cosmopolitan liberalism because it gives autonomous individuals a sense of purpose and meaning through identity politics.

The mainstay of identity politics is a politics of revisionism. Revisionism is happening within the institutional framework of liberal democracy and while it will use available mechanisms to unseat existing political factions, its true intent may be neither democracy nor caring to reconcile the key tenets of the existing order.

Identity-based politics is a powerful tool for mobilisation of grievance and revision of the existing order, irrespective of what one may think of its consequences. Both the South African and European version of identity politics is privileging distinct social groups, traditions, values and practices as part of the revisionist national identity project. In Europe, they may succeed because these movements are increasingly transnationally organised and orchestrated. They often also involve geopolitical intrigue, given current great power rivalry in Eurasia.

Revisionist identity politics centres its interests around a specific social group(s) and as the core force in transforming the national identity. And, where the liberation of the social group gains primacy, rather than that of the individual. In South Africa, its various vectors of political rhetoric and activism have been targeting icons of racial conciliation, the remnants of white colonial history and spaces that are viewed as preserves of white privilege.

The anti-populist narrative in the media and of political commentators sees populism as a conveyor belt for different pejorative meanings: mob rule, utopian thinking, irrationality, anti-Rainbow Nation, race or ethnic chauvinism and the rise of fascism.

Pejorative slurs neither explain nor give insight. They are often glib rhetorical devices hoping to make the opponent go away.

It is no surprise that Steve Bannon, doing his European rounds promoting The Movement (a transnational populist formation) kept imploring his listeners and followers to ignore the labels and focus on the end goals.

Revisionists see identity politics as a powerful tool for transforming existing national aspirations by privileging their own social group(s) above the individual. And, there are often very good and legitimate reasons for doing so.

The social group is the modern version of the family; it even transcends the natural family. It is the prerequisite to the nation, as the nation is the sum of the parts of the specific social group(s). The social group itself is the totem of virtuous politics and the vehicle to arrive at a new historical spirit and end.

While poverty, land and inequality may be the underlying cause for friction, the rhetoric of “us” and “them” positions, in the end, the named enemy not only as these issues, but another group or people as holding back progress and advancement of the victims, as in our case, of white monopoly capital, the professional classes and intelligentsia, the banks, the media and all other scapegoats and culprits one can find.

The 2019 South African elections will tell whether the centrists versus the nationalists will gain strength, but we should have no wishful thinking that they will go away if present patterns of inequality continue and where one’s race determines whether you are more privileged than the another. DM


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