Populism: here to stay

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Populism is here to stay, it was agreed at an event hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation on 11 November.

“Populism highlights an inflection point in a country,” said Desné Masie, researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand’s School of Governance. “South Africa will have to live with a little bit of populism ... or it won’t have democracy.”

Populism is the belief that ordinary people should control government instead of a small group of political insiders.

Masie was speaking at one of the European Union’s Inspiring Thinkers debate series events, hosted at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory on November 7. The Foundation co-hosted the event with the Delegation of the European Union to South Africa.

Masie’s School of Governance colleague, Vishwas Satgar, agreed that populism is an essential dimension of politics. “The EFF (Economic Freedom Fighters) do not have the makings of a popular democratic movement, but they do vocalise faultlines (in South Africa),” he said.

There are six big risks to this form of ideology, said Stefan Lehne, a visiting scholar at foreign policy analyst Carnegie Europe.

The risks listed by Lehne are: an “us versus them” attitude; a decline in appetite for rational debate; charismatic leaders and personality cults; a rejection of the workings of democracy; hostility to global bodies and laws; and a lack of interest in 21st-century challenges such as climate change and migration

William Gumede, executive chairperson of advocacy organisation Democracy Works, said the rise of African populism since the end of World War II has failed to deliver the promises it had made on economic growth, jobs and development. Most of this populism has been leftist, although there has been, in later years, an increase in right-wing populism, he said.

In the question and answer session after the opening panel discussion, activist Jay Naidoo said establishment politics will continue to “miss the moment” if it fails to realise ordinary people “don’t care a damn” about high-end economics. Instead, they want practical progress in areas such as housing and access to services such as water. Satgar pointed out that it was revolution, not liberalism, that had developed human rights.

Liberalism’s big mistake, said Satgar, is believing that its tenets are a logical consequence of human political development. Populism, by itself, is merely a political shortcut, and its recent rise is an indication that “we need to go back to grassroots and build up from there”.

The challenge, said Gumede, is how to turn populism into “a democratic project”.