Camaren Peter argues we are seeing an emergence of both left- and right-wing populism in the South African political spectrum, with both the governing party and the opposition pandering to political narratives and superficial conspiracism that would until recently have been relegated to the dustbin of ideas.
In Anne Applebaum’s recent book, ‘Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends’, she cites the findings of Karen Stenner’s research that indicates that about one-third of the population of any nation-state struggle to process complexity cognitively. She argues that this helps explain why the simplistic political narratives deployed by right-wing populists – which often involve scapegoating and superficial, conspiracist analyses of social and political problems – when combined with the substantively transformed digital informational and media environment of the 21st Century, is largely responsible for the global rise of the anti-democratic authoritarian right in nation states across the world.
It stands to reason that this cognitive vulnerability in the populations of nation-states – i.e., difficulties in understanding complexity – also makes it easier for left-wing populists to capitalise on simplistic political narratives and conspiracist invective. Indeed, this is what we have witnessed in South Africa in recent history spanning back to the global economic collapse in 2008.
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In part, this explains the emergence of both left- and right-wing populism in the South African political spectrum, and both the governing party and the opposition’s pandering to political narratives and superficial conspiracism that would until recently have been relegated to the dustbin of ideas that were cast out of their political playbooks.
The governing party has embraced the rhetoric of the populist left in an attempt to take the wind out of their sails, while the official opposition has parroted the alt-right narratives that have gained purchase in right-wing, authoritarian governed democracies around the world.
Political parties that previously held the middle ground, albeit to the left and right of centre (such as the ANC and DA, respectively), have decided to ‘play-the-game’ according to the new ‘rules-of-the-game’. Instead of challenging the new rules and making a moral and principled effort to negate and transcend them – by appealing to the greater sensibilities of ordinary people – they are actively participating in the divisive, fearmongering that is usually reserved for those at the extreme end of the political spectrum.
Dangerous game to play
It is a dangerous game to be playing, especially for the left. In the contest between right- and left-wing populism, it is the right who usually win out. Indeed, we have witnessed an abundance of swings towards the authoritarian right across the globe. This might well prove to be the case in South Africa as well, as the centre-left ANC’s failures continue to grow and left-wing parties and organisations come under increased scrutiny by a public that is fed up with instability and disruption.
A swing to the right might seem impossible to many in the South African political left, but it is not unimaginable in the divisive and uncertain social and political environment we find ourselves in.
The rise of strongman-styled leaders – locally and nationally – that espouse direct, action-oriented approaches towards addressing social ills that play fast and loose with the law and constitutional principles, often scapegoating minority groups in the process, is a key indication of the drift towards authoritarian, right-wing populist movements in South Africa.
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Interestingly, in South Africa, these right-wing formations make a strong play to garner support across the different races and classes that constitute the citizenry in large part. Their rhetoric is typically ultra-nationalist and/or parochial, invoking patriotic fervour and dissent towards a host of ‘enemies’ ranging from ruling elites (which typically include the governing party as well as established opposition parties i.e., the ‘establishment’) to immigrants and asylum seekers.
They unify South Africans by leveraging their despair and disillusionment with the society they live in and the dysfunctions they face within it on a daily basis. They provide easy targets upon which blame can be laid. Their solutions are simplistic; get rid of the ANC and the foreigners that were let in under its tenure, support the growth of business and industry, and everything will turn around for the better. In a period of great uncertainty and rapid change, these simple prescriptions are appealing to many South Africans who understandably lack the capacity – and/or simply the time – to keep up with current affairs and events and interpret them in all their complexity. What would previously have been unthinkable – i.e., an alliance of both black and white South Africans around a fundamentally right-wing political agenda – may become a reality. It’s not as far-fetched as one may think. South Africans, after all, are largely socially conservative, even though they expect a lot of the state in respect of service provisions and securities.
And it is precisely the socially conservative values that underpin their notion of what is and should be normal in society and politics that has been betrayed. Established social and political norms that saw South Africans through a transition from a violent and uncertain end to apartheid to a new democratic dispensation are being cast aside by a morally and ethically bankrupt political elite that is out of touch with ordinary people.
Erosion of core values
And this diagnosis is correct. We are living through a rapid and disturbing erosion of the core values that bind South African democracy together. The Constitution is under attack from both those on the left and the right, yet ‘never the twain shall meet’ as the left possess an ideology that they are aware of while the right possess an ideology that they are oblivious to. Both are blinded by ideology and will not ‘see’ as a result of the blinkers they possess.
Complexity is their enemy, which puts democratic institutions and conventions in their crosshairs. They have to go to war with them, whether consciously or not, because they are fundamentally anti-democratic at heart. They believe that democracy is best administered through rhetoric but governed through authoritarianism. Both reason that this produces better democratic outcomes for the citizenry. They are two sides of the same coin.
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The flip of the coin, however, might be weighted towards the right, much to the consternation and horror of the left, who have historically owned the moral and ethical heart of South African politics. Yet the fault is their own. Their pompous, ideologically-driven, holier-than-though posturing, brash radicalism, threats of violent upheaval and hunger for power has deepened the sense of fear, alienation and exclusion that ordinary people feel – across classes and races – from left-wing political representation both within and outside of the ruling party.
In this tension between an ideologically-driven left-wing project that is encumbered by corruption and is deaf to the concerns of ordinary people – and a right-wing populist, ultra-nationalist set of movements committed to direct action, it should come as no surprise that the right may win out. But we are so close to it all that we struggle to see it clearly.
While the far-left political formations contain, for example, the EFF, Pan African Congress, Black First Land First and the unions, cohering with the centre-left ANC (which itself is internally split with the far-left RET faction contesting power from within) – the right wing includes a growing proliferation of political formations such as ActionSA, Put South Africans First, African Transformation Moverment and local secessionist and interest-based groups such as Gatvol Capetonians, anti-abortionists and death penalty advocates, which in turn cohere with a centre-right political formation containing, for example, the DA, FF, and IFP.
New political alliance?
Should South Africans decide that they’ve had enough of being let down by the centre-left ANC and the far-left political formations whose sabre rattling has brought too much instability to their lives and livelihoods, they may well succumb to the rhetoric of the far-right promise of strong direct-action based governance that restores order and enforces accountability. In this scenario, the swing to the right will likely be anchored by centre-right parties such as the DA and FF, but it is entirely foreseeable that ActionSA will be the primary vehicle through which a new political alliance will be brokered. That might well be why we’ve seen the leaders of ActionSA and the DA – Herman Mashaba and John Steenhuisen – in pictures demonstrating their unity in the press of late, even though Herman Mashaba left the DA in protest only a few years ago.
To add to the prospects of a surprising right-wing resurgence in South Africa, while a great deal of media attention has gone into questioning the ANC’s electoral funding, scarce attention has been paid to what funding is behind the political formations on the right. That might well give them the element of surprise in the contestation for power that will unfold in the years to come. It is unsurprising, however, if we consider the myriad swings towards the right in democracies around the world and in countries where it was once thought to be unthinkable.
– Professor Camaren Peter is an Associate Professor at UCT’s Graduate School of Business and is Director and Executive Head of the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change. Opinions expressed here are his own.
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