Beware! Populists could rule SA, Motlanthe warns

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Beware! Populists could rule SA, Motlanthe warns

Voters should pick apart what left- and right-wing populists tell them, lest they end up running the country

Associate editor: analysis

Former president Kgalema Motlanthe has warned voters that they should properly analyse the words of populist politicians since there is a risk that such people could end up governing South Africa.
Motlanthe said that if people just go by the colours, songs and slogans of political parties “the reality exists that populists might end up winning their support and becoming the governing organisation”.
“Is the electorate prepared to vote on the basis of a proper analysis and assessment of the political parties that are canvassing them for their support or not?”
“The problem with populism is that it has no regard for facts,” said Motlanthe.He was speaking in an interview during his foundation’s inclusive growth conference in the Drakensberg at the weekend. The gathering attracted a large number of thought leaders, academics, business people and civil society leaders, and was opened by President Cyril Ramaphosa on Friday.
Motlanthe said populism was part and parcel of the political spectrum.
“You will find populists who are positioned from the extreme right and you will find populists who are positioned from the extreme left. Half the time they are very close because the gap that separates them is marginal,” he said.  
Asked about the stoking of racial divisions, Motlanthe said people should pursue working towards the unity of South Africans in their diversity, as enjoined by the constitution.
“If someone expresses a backward view, I don’t think it should be elevated to become a national crisis,” he said.“I think the responsibility of those who have public platforms and leadership positions is to harp on the message that reinforces the prescripts of the constitution rather than to allow themselves to slide into the inevitable position of having to establish thought police,” said Motlanthe.
Speaking at the conference, Ramaphosa’s special investment envoy, Mcebisi Jonas, warned about the rise of “anti-democratic populism” due to increasing social discontent.
“With economic stagnation, growing inequality and unemployment, social discontent has increased, not only among the unemployed but also among the working and middle classes who saw living standards decline,” Jonas said.
Following a decade of low growth, a hollowed-out, inefficient and fiscally starved state has been unable to defuse the growing resentment against elites and technocrats, he said.“In the South African context, rising youth unemployment and increased social discontent have fed the growth of populism both within and outside the ANC; together with a developing narrative that constitutional provisions, a free media and an independent judiciary were constraints to transformation,” said Jonas.
Speaking on the effects of state capture, Jonas said the discourse of indigenisation was used to extend and consolidate abusive patronage networks, and undermine constitutionally provided checks and balances.
“Fortunately, our institutions of democratic accountability proved resilient, supported by a core network both within the alliance and civil society. But high levels of social discontent remain, as do the objective conditions fuelling these growing populist sentiments, which could still be manipulated by those with everything to lose as the abusive patronage networks get dissembled,” Jonas said.He also warned that both left- and right-wing populism defined enemies, rather than political adversaries, who can be “vilified and dehumanised”. Populists perceive any form of opposition as illegitimate and claim that they themselves speak “for the people”.
 “Populists do not just provide ideological alternatives within the democratic system; they reject the democratic system itself,” said Jonas.

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