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Opportunism de Lux: Charismatic, populist leaders fuelling xenophobia are not heroes


Zukiswa Pikoli is a journalist and columnist at Daily Maverick and is part of the founding team of Maverick Citizen. Prior to Daily Maverick she worked as a communications and advocacy officer at Public Interest Law Centre SECTION27.

Something strange and disturbing is happening in South Africa, which, if we are honest, has been taking place for a while: a rise in populist and protectionist politics led by a crop of charismatic leaders.

Within a week there were a number of very public xenophobic campaigns led by this leadership and its cohorts aimed at “rooting out” foreigners who are allegedly taking South African jobs and engaging in criminal activities. Enter one self-proclaimed commander in chief, Julius Malema, and the president of Soweto Parliament, Nhlanhla Lux Dlamini.

Charismatic authority or leadership is a term that was coined by German sociologist Max Weber. He describes it as being the kind of authority that derives its thrust from the charisma of the leader and is often contrasted with legal and traditional authority.

Malema is one such charismatic leader who built his political party around himself and amassed a populist following after being expelled from the ANC. Using traditional revolutionary rhetoric and sloganeering, nationalising privately owned assets into state assets and the rise of young people to positions of power where the old guard is seen as clinging to power, he has tapped into a constituency base that feels unseen, unheard and dismissed. These too are the people who feel disgruntled about foreigners allegedly taking their jobs. And so this week Malema led a xenophobic campaign to “rationalise” the number of foreign versus South African workers in low-wage-paying jobs such as those in restaurants.

During the civil unrest in July 2021, a young man by the name of Nhlanhla Lux Dlamini rose to popularity, with many hailing him as a hero for having defended Soweto’s Maponya Mall from being looted and vandalised. Soon he was in every newspaper and on every news show and social media platform talking militantly about being an active nonpartisan citizen, defending South African and the need for a centralisation of issues affecting young people, such as unemployment. Dlamini has also been quoted as saying: “Old people must stop hogging positions of power and give space to young leadership that can and will guide us into a better future. There is no reason why our communities and wards must be led by 80-year-old councillors.”

Now at first blush, of course, who would deny the importance of any of the issues raised by Dlamini? However, he seems to have turned his attention to the xenophobic rooting out of foreigners now, having recently led a disturbing march to remove foreign traders from the Baragwanath Taxi Rank.

As a country currently in crisis it therefore becomes easy to be preyed upon by opportunistic leadership such as this. With South Africa sitting with a crisis-level unemployment rate, anyone seen to be cracking down on immigrants labelled as job stealers is likely to find resonance among the poor and unemployed. But we are a country of laws, and this lawlessness and bullying cannot be allowed to persist unabated. Where is law enforcement when such actions as those led by Dlamini unfold across South Africa? When Malema claims to be on official parliamentary oversight business, where is the head of the National Assembly to sanction these claims? Where even is the President to denounce such actions?

This speaks to an inconsistency in governance and law enforcement. Minister of Employment and Labour Thulas Nxesi’s lackadaisical response to Malema and the EFF’s restaurant inspections, saying that his department was still finalising regulations to deal with the employment of foreign workers, was itself uninspiring.

In 2021, President Cyril Ramaphosa was quoted as saying: “We have been very welcoming to our nationals from other parts of the world. We are not xenophobic. What happened two years ago was a response to our own internal challenges of unemployment and poverty. These are challenges countries around the world experience from time to time.” This shows an out-of-touch response to a dangerous situation that is being downplayed. Incidents of xenophobia have been happening consistently in South Africa, and with political parties like the EFF jumping on the bandwagon they are bound to take root even more.

It is vital that as South Africans we stay vigilant so that we do not find ourselves vulnerable to being unwitting participants in actions of xenophobia, vigilantism and bullying that make heroes out of self-serving leaders because we are desperate for change. DM168

Zukiswa Pikoli is a journalist at Maverick Citizen.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


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