Age of the populist leader here
Across the globe leaders who are politically very similar to Cyril Ramaphosa are losing elections and becoming yesterday’s men and women.
They are on the back foot. They are watching as political leaders who are a lot like Julius Malema win elections, step into office and implement policies that are dividing societies and undermining regional and continental pacts.
These are leaders who are not just taking power in their own countries but are using local voice and influence to reshape the global geopolitical architecture.
Last week in Mexico a populist, leftist leader, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, was elected president in a landslide victory that was interpreted by many as a rejection of the centrist path the country’s political elite has pursued over the past few decades.
The rout in Mexico follows a series of rejections of establishment candidates across the globe – and the rise of populist leaders such as Donald Trump in the US, several in a fastchanging Europe and more in Latin America. What’s going on?
“The recent elections in Latin America have exhibited the same demand for change [as the election in Mexico] . . .
“The results are not endorsements of ideologies, but rather demands for change, a fatigue felt by people waiting for answers that simply have not arrived,” the New York Times quoted Laura Chinchilla, the former president of Costa Rica, as saying.
What does this say about our future political configuration in SA?
We would be foolish to think that a populist, left-leaning or right-leaning leader will not rise to power here on the same basis. People are just tired of the ANC’s failures.
The power of Malema’s rhetoric and populism is huge.
He exhorts, he cajoles, he makes up enemies (Indians and journalists), and he picks issues to exploit – all this fires up his supporters.
Jacob Zuma may have been wrong back in the early 2010s when he said Malema would be president of South Africa, but he wasn’t wrong about Malema’s significance.
Look at Malema’s mobilisation tactics on land, race and the economy. Look at how he has turned the land restitution debate and the resultant parliamentary hearings into a referendum on the new SA and a debate on Section 25 (the property clause) of the constitution even when that is not at all the issue here.
Whenever Malema shouts the ANC gets the shakes and adopts his policies. As he gains confidence, the ANC loses its resoluteness.
Malema has the winds of global change under his wings.
Love him or despise him, but don’t make a mistake – he is no longer a fringe figure in South African policy-making.
The world is changing. There are no guarantees that people will vote as we expect them to. Take Angela Merkel, for example. The German leader has faced an onslaught from her enemies for years.
As the UK has fallen to insular, nationalistic and right-wing ideology under Theresa May, Merkel is the last great standing liberal bulwark in a Europe that is falling fast and furiously to nationalistic, populist and right-wing forces.
Yet this week she looks weaker than she has ever been.
When she returned home from negotiating a Europewide immigration policy with fellow European Union leaders on Sunday last week, she found her own conservative alliance about to collapse.
Her own minister of the interior was threatening to resign over the dispute with Merkel over immigration policy.
No surprises there: the liberal Merkel is in alliance with farright parties (her party couldn’t form a government without them after populist, far rightwingers made significant gains in last year’s elections).
She is extremely weak within her alliance. Politically she is seen as a dead woman walking: weak in her party, even weaker in her brittle coalition.
Who does she remind you of? Cyril Ramaphosa was endorsed by the trade unions – they are now claiming their pound of flesh at Eskom, in the civil service and elsewhere.
Inside the ANC, the Guptaites and Zuma-ites are retrying to resuscitate the kleptocracy that flourished over the past 10 years.
Ramaphosa cannot implement quick reform as the Zuma faction keeps telling him about “radical economic transformation”, a term and policy conjured up for looting.
Ramaphosa can still achieve much.
He is not a dead man walking. Yet the world out there looks bleak for people like him.
Globally, we are in the age of the populist leader...