SA ripe for demagogue, Harvard historian says
South Africa has many of the ingredients needed for the electorate to vote a populist demagogue into power, Harvard historian Niall Ferguson said.
Speaking at the Discovery Leadership Summit in Sandton yesterday, Ferguson urged people to ask questions about the country’s future and examine if Julius Malema –whom he called a demagogue – was likely to be voted into power on promises to fix the economy and inequality.
He noted that factors that had led to the electorate voting for Britain to leave the European Union and voting Donald Trump in the US and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela into power were present here .
- Perceived uncontrolled immigration;
- A sense of inequality;
- Economic recessions; and
- The feeling that the elite and politicians were corrupt.
“All that is then needed is a charismatic demagogue who can channel all the anger and frustration the citizens feel about those four factors.”
Ferguson said populism was a backlash against globalisation and feelings of not benefiting from economic growth.
“What I do see is that some of these things are issues here in South Africa,” the historian said.
“Certainly issues of migration have become highly sensitive.
“Certainly income inequality is one of the biggest issues in the country.
“South Africans must ask: ‘Are the economic [shocks] sufficient to destabilise things. Is Julius Malema the demagogue who comes along and says, I have the solution and I am the only one who can fix this?’ ”
Ferguson said Trump would show populist leaders were bad for the economy in the long term.
But General Electric founder Jack Welch, who also spoke at the summit via video link, said Ferguson would be proved 100% wrong.
Trump was going to be a pragmatic president with a can-do business attitude, he said.
“[Under Trump] it won’t be low level bureaucrats dealing with low-level bureaucrats choking innovation,” Welch said.
He agreed that people had to feel the economy benefited them.
Football star and Unicef ambassador David Beckham also spoke and had this advice for young people- work hard, be dedicated, stay grounded and have a passion for what you do.
Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan said South Africa needed to start talking about a revolution in its business culture towards more ethical outcomes.
It was important to start looking at how people outside government and in the corporate sector were doing business with people inside government, Gordhan said.
South Africa needed national consensus that its levels of inequality and participation in the economy were unacceptable, so it could then look for ways to solve these issues.
The economy was too oligopolistic– with too few companies and very little competition.
“The key is to create a unity of purpose, gathering all our resources to generate different kinds of activity,”Gordhan said.
“We want freedom from inequality, racism and sexism.
“If you want all of that . . . you have to work at it. Are you actively promoting non-racism, non-sexism and inclusive transformation in your workplaces?”
The other speakers at the summit included Huffington Post and Thrive Global founder Arianna Huffington, and leading adviser on China’s dynamic technology and consumer sectors Duncan Clark.