OPINION | Ursula van Beek: Populism and identity politics stand as enemies of democracy

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A voter casting her ballot at a polling station at the Johannesburg Muslim School in Newtown.
A voter casting her ballot at a polling station at the Johannesburg Muslim School in Newtown.
Luca Sola / AFP

With the war in Ukraine, economic downturn, and climate-change displacements, democracy is under pressure because citizens are more readily receptive to the idea of autocratic political solutions, which they imagine might offer them a better quality of life, writes Ursula van Beek.


International Day of Democracy is observed annually on 15 September to remind us of the need to promote and protect democracy.

It's safe to say that not since the Cold War era has democracy faced greater perils than it does today. Maybe even more so now than then. The erstwhile bi-polar geopolitical configuration was clearly demarcated by the "iron curtain", as Winston Churchill famously named it. Democracy was on the one side of the great divide and communism on the other, with most of the rest of the world supporting one of the two rival sides.      

When Mikhail Gorbachev, who died last month, introduced political and economic freedoms in the Soviet Union in 1989, the Cold War ended effectively. Communist regimes fell in Eastern and Central Europe, as did the infamous Berlin Wall, with reunified Germany emerging. The end of history was said to have arrived – not just the end of the Cold War. It was argued at the time that mankind's ideological evolution had come to an end. The universalisation of Western liberal democracy was supposed to have ushered in the final form of human government.  


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These pivotal events also made possible the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa. The National Party's bogeyman narrative of communism taking over the country if apartheid were to be abolished lost its credence, prompting FW de Klerk to take the liberalisation route. And so, South Africa became part of the wave of new democracies springing up everywhere and spreading across the globe. 

READ | ANALYSIS: Mikhail Gorbachev - southern Africans have a special reason to thank him

But history does not unfold in a linear fashion. Instead, it tends to move back, forth, and sideways and repeat itself. So, as the triumph of democracy was celebrated elsewhere, the breaking up of the 15 republics of the Soviet Union in 1991 weakened Russia's global influence and precipitated its economic collapse.

In 2005, Vladimir Putin described the process on the Russia Today TV propaganda station as the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century", thus setting the stage for his campaign of 'imperial' restoration. Russia's earlier annexation of Crimea and the brutal invasion of Ukraine are the outcome. 

Impact of Russian-Ukraine war

The destabilising effects of the ongoing war in Ukraine are felt around the globe. The sharply rising inflation rates deepen the already extreme levels of inequality, with the poorest affected the most. The war combined with the economic downturn brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change-induced mass displacements, and migrations has had an impact. The resultant hardships amplify popular sentiments of deprivation and unfairness. Such sentiments put democracy under pressure because citizens are more readily receptive to the idea of autocratic political solutions, which they imagine might offer them a better quality of life. This is especially so in the face of the growing influence and – for some – allure of China, at a time when the traditional role of the United States as the global standard-bearer for democracy seems to have visibly diminished. 

The Swedish Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) project calls this trend away from democracy 'autocratisation'. V-Dem democracy indices are considered to be the most reliable as they track changes over time since 1900 and include over 300 different indicators to measure specific aspects of the political system. The 2022 V-Dem Report identified polarisation as one of the most powerful drivers of autocratisation showing it to be a dominant trend in 40 countries and increasing across all world regions, regardless of the size, economic performance, or levels of democracy in a given country. 

READ | OPINION: Americanisation of our national discourse exacerbates political polarisation

Polarisation comes in two forms: affective and political. The former happens when people identify themselves with and see the world through the eyes of their own group, be it defined by race, ethnicity, region, or religion. 

Political polarisation, on the other hand, entails identification with a particular political party. Such ideological allegiance is the lifeblood of a democracy. It provides the material from which to build the image of a party and mobilise voter support. However, to achieve this aim, parties must learn to compromise by overcoming their internal differences. In cases where this is not easily achievable, no coherent policy can be devised or implemented, thus reducing the quality of governance and of democracy itself. In cases where differences become irreconcilable, the given party is likely to implode, leaving a vacuum in the political life of the country that might have a deeply destabilising impact on democracy. This is especially true for dominant political parties, such as the ANC.

Focus on identity

But it is the affective form of polarisation that has the power to destroy a democracy. Affective polarisation finds expression through populist leaders and the parties they establish. The democratic electoral system makes possible the emergence of these parties, while their members believe themselves to be the real democrats because they speak for 'the people'; the 'people' in this case are those who share the party's particular identity. Populist parties have no policy of their own to offer; their most inherent characteristic attitude across the world is their 'anti' attitude: anti-establishment, anti-immigration, anti-capitalism, anti-West and anti-everyone who does not belong to 'the people.' 

READ | SA’s democracy ‘fragile and fraught with spectacular failings’ – Justice Jody

Followers of populist parties cast their votes on identity, not by evaluating candidates or the policies of other parties. By so doing, they split the society into "us" versus "them". The resultant hostility and mistrust undermine the norm of coexistence, greatly diminishing, or dismantling entirely, the capacity and willingness to cooperate and compromise, which is a crucial component of the competitive political system that is democracy.

Enemies at the gate

The quintessential populist party in South Africa is the Economic Freedom Fighters. The entire policy of that party is geared towards finding and exploiting every controversial political or social issue that might arise, often in a violent manner. They are the foes of social cohesion who mock the dreams of all those who had fought against apartheid for a South Africa that belongs to all who live in it, as proclaimed in the Freedom Charter and echoed by the father of the nation, Nelson Mandela. Not for them, the 'Rainbow Nation' of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Not for them Neville Alexander's touching metaphor of the Gariep (the Orange River) with its main tributaries carrying different cultural traditions, practices, customs, and beliefs flowing majestically into the sea. And not for them the conviction of Steve Biko, who had died in prison for believing in racial equality and for promoting self-empowerment through reconstructing a misinformed sense of black identity. 

As we celebrate the International Day of Democracy, let us also beware of the enemies at the gate. To protect democracy, we must stay vigilant and watch out for the wolves in sheep's clothing.

- Prof Ursula van Beek is a historian. She is the Director of the Centre for Research on Democracy (CREDO) at Stellenbosch University.  

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