Populism has SA in its grip left, right and centre
Global study shows the nation is among the most extreme in its politics, but local analysts say it’s not that simple
A global poll suggests political populism is on the rise in SA, but local experts say it is not as simple as that.
Initial voting trends from this week’s elections show citizens are increasingly disheartened, say political analysts polled by Times Select.
They were responding to The Globalism Project, an international study conducted in March, which surveyed 25,000 people in 19 countries on their views on politics, democracy and nationalism.
Conducted by the YouGov-Cambridge Centre for Public Opinion Research and the Bennett Institute for Public Policy, based at Cambridge University and the Guardian newspaper, the study looked at populism, how it changed politics and its impact on globalisation.
The online study, whose findings were released the day before our elections, defined populism as an ideology that separates society into “the pure people” versus “the corrupt elite” and politics as an “expression of the general will of the people”.
Respondents were seen as having a populist view if they strongly agreed with both statements: “My country is divided between ordinary people and the corrupt elites who exploit them” and “The will of the people should be the highest principle in this country’s politics”.
It revealed that of the South Africans polled, 39% held populist political views, with Brazil, which elected the rightwinger Jair Bolsonaro as president in October 2018, leading the rankings at 42%.
SA was ranked second out of the 19 countries.
Other countries included in the top five nations with strong populist political views were Thailand, Mexico and Turkey. A quarter of all French, US and Spanish citizens were shown to hold populist political views, while the citizens of Sweden, Japan and Denmark had the lowest such views.
The research showed those who held strong populist political views were also more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, including that a “secret Illuminati-style group rules the world”.
The survey revealed among other things that:
40% of those polled believe the world’s affairs are orchestrated; and
27% believe information about the harmful effects of vaccines is hidden from the public.
“Twenty years ago, populist parties were seen as a marginal force. Since then, anti-establishment populism has been on the rise, particularly after the 2008 financial crash and the 2015 refugee crisis in Europe.
“Now, some are predicting the European elections could return more rightwing populists than ever. Beyond the EU, five of the world’s largest democracies, including the US, are led by populists.
“Supporters of populism say it champions the ordinary person against vested interests and is vital to democracy. But critics say populists in power often go against democratic norms, undermining the media, science, judiciary or by trampling minority rights.”
What do our own experts say?
UCT political scientist Dr Zwelethu Jolobe said populism emerged when people looked for alternatives because there were no “good political solutions to prevailing social problems”.
But “there has not been a significant rise in populist politics [in South Africa], as seen in Europe, the US and Brazil”.
“This can be seen from the election results, which are a good indicator of the country’s political mood. The ANC, which is likely to win, is not a populist party. The EFF practises populism but in a measured way because the population does not have an appetite for that kind of political populism, which is anti-immigrant and anti-establishment, which we see elsewhere.”
Political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi said the findings on SA should be treated with caution.
“While there are protest votes against the establishment such as with Brexit and the Trump presidency, the strength of political views manifests differently, especially through citizens’ disengagement. Of SA’s eligible voters, 9 million did not register to vote, with the voter turnout this election likely to be only 65%, which is a nearly 10% drop compared to the 2014 elections.
“That is disengagement by millions. It is telling and points to the fact that political views do not always guarantee participation in formal democratic protests such as elections.”
Political analyst Shadrack Gutto said a weakness in the state would drive people to different ends of the political spectrum.
“Citizens are realising that there have been no real answers to the problems of the country, which has helped fuel the growth of populist leaders.”
Prof Sabelo Ndlovu said populist political parties were “mushrooming” in the country.
“South African voters are moving towards parties linked to extreme leftism, rightism and emerging Africanism. These extremes are clear especially with the emergence of the Black First Land First and Front Nasionaal.
“Voters, frustrated by their dashed hopes for employment and housing post-apartheid, have led to the mushrooming of these extreme parties.”
But both BLF and Front Nasionaal did not fare well in the elections this week.
Black First Land First has expressed disappointment with the handful of votes it had received – it is highly unlikely to have a seat in parliament – while rightwingers Front Nasionaal had secured even fewer votes than BLF...