It is a shame that inequality has become sharper during our constitutional democracy than during apartheid.
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Prepare yourself for an unprecedented era of cheap populism, here in South Africa and elsewhere in the world.
Populism has gone mainstream. It’s progressed from countries like Venezuela and small parties like the EFF to the US, Europe and the governing ANC.
Be prepared to deal with wild promises and appeals to people’s baser instincts with ethnic and race mobilisation, jingoism and narrow nationalism, the demonising of the “other”, attacks on the media, and creeping authoritarianism.
You should know that we will have to deal on a daily basis with phenomena such as “post-truth”, “alternative facts”, fake news and propaganda onslaughts.
The international flag bearer for the new, more mainstream populism is American president Donald Trump.
His buddy Vladimir Putin is not far behind, and then we have Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski, with right-wing populists knocking on the doors of power. These are people like Geert Wilders of the Netherlands, Frauke Petry of Germany and Marine le Pen of France.
But we here at the southern tip of Africa are going to experience the growing populism of Jacob Zuma and his support group much more acutely.
If we had any doubts about his intentions, Zuma cleared it up in the last few weeks: he is going to use “white monopoly capital”, “radical economic transformation” and ethnic mobilisation to rescue his dwindling power and divert the attention away from his personal and financial scandals and those of his shady friends.
He’s going to be enthusiastically supported by the Gupta propaganda machine, the ANC’s Youth and Women’s Leagues, captured splinter groups like Black First Land First, Paid Twitter and a fake news campaign on social media. It’s already all around us.
This new generation of populist politicians have one thing in common: fertile ground in the population.
Trump, a billionaire, positioned himself as the champion of the struggling lower middle class, workers and fundamentalist Christians.
He successfully exploited the resentment towards the Washington political establishment, while his opponent, Hillary Clinton, underestimated these marginalised people and their sentiments.
Zuma’s fertile ground is the dangerous poverty, inequality and unemployment, and the under-representation of black people in the economy of South Africa, exacerbated by the reality or perception that white racism is still flourishing.
Trump and Zuma are totally different personalities, but in terms of style and strategy they have a lot in common.
Both understand that people who feel neglected or marginalised are susceptible to manipulation and their anger is easy to hijack and channel.
Simplify who the enemy is – the elite, the liberals, the minorities, the immigrants, the media, foreign powers – and legitimise bigotry, prejudice and intolerance in the name of pride, patriotism and loyalty.
Position yourself as some sort of messiah for the little guy and he will feel empowered by you and walk through the fire for you.
Trump and Zuma have an equal disrespect for the truth and disregard for facts; both fight to keep their personal finances a secret; both cultivate an image of macho masculinity that borders on misogyny; both pretend to be very religious while their lives and actions suggest otherwise.
It is interesting that Trump has such a blindly loyal following in many countries in the world, including South Africa.
Nationalists, ethnic chauvinists, racists, Islamophobes, sexists, reactionaries and people everywhere who feel bitter and excluded for whatever reason see Trump as a symbol that their prejudices are real and legitimate and that it was time they stepped out of the shadows.
Trump shows a middle finger to tolerance and moderation – they would say political correctness – on their behalf.
This is understandable. What is harder to explain, is how these Trump followers are prepared to turn a blind eye to his lies, distortions, loutish behaviour, vindictiveness and highly questionable temperament.
We see this happening with Zuma in South Africa too.
The media here and in the US and Europe, low as its credibility among some may be, will have to be very alert to the damage that this populism can do to their societies.
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