So, recently we saw a surge in populist victories across the globe. In Great Britain the majority of the electorate, mostly blue collar, working class people, voted to leave the EU, a move that was not expected by anybody. In the USA, the blue collar, working class people voted for Trump over Hillary Clinton, in a move that no one expected.
What is happening is that everywhere blue collar, working class folk are taking a stand against a system which they feel has left them in the lurch. Trump received votes from them because he promised to bring manufacturing jobs back to the USA, and stop jobs from leaving. Clinton, on the other hand, espoused a more free trade policy. They voted for Brexit because the leaders of the anti-EU movement promised that the funds they spend on EU membership would rather be spent in Britain. The EU is also an inherent free trade zone, which caused many British jobs to be shipped to mainland Europe.
This is the inherent cycle of capitalism. Big companies ship their factories to countries with more lax labour laws and lower wages, and import their manufactured goods back into their country of origin. This leaves the working class, reliant on these manufacturing jobs, jobless and unhappy. Is it then any wonder that they flock in such large numbers to candidates promising to change this cycle through more protectionism?
So, what does this have to do with South Africa? In South Africa, there is also a large portion of the population, mainly black, who felt like they have been left out of the system they were promised back in 1994. For many, their lives have not tangibly improved, even after 22 years of democracy, yet they still see white men making up the majority of the middle and upper class. A large portion of the blame can be placed at the feet of the ANC, who has showed time and time again that they would rather act in self-interest than in the interest of their electorate, always using the excuse of ‘the legacy of apartheid’ for their failures and misconduct.
Now, we see the rise of a populist leader within South Africa, called Julius Malema. He blames whites for the problems South Africa and the lower classes now face. He has recently stated that ‘whites have it all. Blacks have nothing.’ He also promises solutions. He promises to occupy land owned by whites and he promises to give it to the poor blacks. He has tapped into discontent felt by the lower classes, showed them their oversimplified enemies, and vowed that he will be the one to crush them and rework the system so that it benefits everyone. He has stated that there can be no justice without land. And who wouldn’t support a leader promising you a free piece of land, especially if you are living in poverty, seeing the wealth of ‘former oppressors.’
Worldwide we are starting to see a new class struggle. In South Africa, this struggle will take on the form of a race struggle as well, given the history of South Africa and current distribution of wealth. One would like to hope that we have moved on from this level of racialism as a country, and that Malema’s rants are mere whispers in a hurricane. But frankly, it might be more like a scream in a vacuum. Populism is gaining a foothold across the world, and Brexit and Trump received much more support than was expected.
Will his wind of populism carry to South Africa? Only time will tell.