Melanie Verwoerd

The ANC's big fight: Countering EFF populism

2018-11-07 07:03
STRENGTH IN NUMBERS EFF leader Julius Malema (centre) and national spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi lead party members during a protest march. The EFF is determined to attract a 9 million-strong voter base for next year’s elections. Picture: Felix Dlangamandla

STRENGTH IN NUMBERS EFF leader Julius Malema (centre) and national spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi lead party members during a protest march. The EFF is determined to attract a 9 million-strong voter base for next year’s elections. Picture: Felix Dlangamandla

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President Cyril Ramaphosa must deliver a big majority for the ANC in the next election to survive politically. The question is how he can do this while countering the populist narrative of the EFF, writes Melanie Verwoerd.

Last week the Afrobarometer team released some polling results. The political party polling results were interesting but given that the elections are still at least seven months away they are unlikely to be very accurate. 

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What interested and concerned me far more were the answers to the following question: "If a non-elected government or leader could impose law and order, and deliver houses, and jobs: How willing or unwilling would you be to give up regular elections and live under such a government?" 

In other words, if given a choice between democracy and delivery, which one would you choose?

62% of respondents replied that they would choose services and give up democracy. Of course this is a rather unfair choice to put to people and it should also be said that the result is not new. Since 2008 polling results of this have been above 60%.

However, it does seem to imply that almost two-thirds of the population would be susceptible to a populist, dictatorial leader. 

We have seen a global rise in populism, driven by an anti-establishment and anti-elite narrative. However, Jan-Werner Muller argues in his book What is populism that criticising the elite is not per se populism. It is something more. Populism manifests itself through political leaders who claim that "they and they alone represent the 'real' people" and that everyone else is illegitimate or corrupt. 

We are increasingly seeing this also in South Africa. Although they have had to regroup following the VBS scandal, the EFF has been positioning itself as the only mouthpiece of the "real" people whilst accusing the ANC of being the new (corrupt) elite.  

Populism breeds intolerance

Although it is true that these populist narratives will only resonate with voters when there are real issues of inequality or corruption, the problem is that populist leaders globally play into the sentiment of the "dangerous other", thus increasing racism, xenophobia, homophobia, sexism and religious intolerance amongst voters. We have seen this clearly with Donald Trump, Brexit, Brazil's new president Jair Bolsonaro and, increasingly, here at home. 

Ultimately populist regimes almost always lead to a reversal of basic human rights, political intolerance and a rise in authoritarianism – something we do not want in our country again.

It is increasingly accepted that it is crucial for President Cyril Ramaphosa's political survival to deliver a big majority for the ANC in the next election. The question is how he (and the ANC) can counter the populist narrative of the EFF whilst still trying to secure a large majority of the popular vote. 

To prevent the EFF from gaining too much ground amongst voters, it is important that President Ramaphosa and the ANC do not allow Malema and his followers to position themselves as the only representatives of the "real" people. The ANC must show through their words and deeds that they understand the issues and concerns of the majority of people in South Africa.  

They will also have to counter the populists by engaging them and winning the public debate. However, they must resist the temptation to "out-popularise" the EFF by using the same or similar populist rhetoric. As Muller puts it: "Talking to them does not mean talking like them." 

Although it is important for Ramaphosa and the ANC to address the issues which are top of mind for the majority of voters, I don't agree with those who believe that the president should talk the populist talk, yet quietly do the "right" (opposite) thing. 

Populism flourishes where there are cultural and/or racial tensions as well as big economic differences. It is therefore crucial that Ramaphosa and the ANC address both of these issues and have believable plans for the future. 

Elite must be held accountable

However, ultimately it will remain impossible to pull the populist rug from under the EFF if the political elite is not held to account. 
It is true that South Africa's tolerance for the shenanigans of the political elite has increased dramatically over the last two decades.

If the elite is seen as untouchable in the slightest, Ramaphosa will leave the door wide open to populist leaders both in and outside his party to continue to position themselves (Armani suits and all) as the only real representatives of the people.  

This will go hand-in-hand with a continued rise in racism, intolerance and the demand for irresponsible populist policies. It is crucial that Ramaphosa continues to act decisively against those who have abused power, have been involved in corruption or lied to the courts.

Reserve Bank governor Lesetja Kganyago recently warned against the harmful effects of populism. As he rightly points out, in order to defeat the populists, you can't just be against them, "you have to do something too".

- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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