About a year ago, I wrote a review of a book entitled ‘In the Name of the People: How Populism is Rewiring the World’. A collaborative effort between scholars from South Africa and abroad, it aimed to demonstrate how a divisive and corrosive form of politics was invading governance the world over. I’m not sure that it succeeded in doing quite that, but as a warning of the threat that a populist ascendency entailed, it was well worth reading.

Populism is a generally understood as an approach to politics – call it a strategy, and ideology or whatever else – that sees the world divided into stark binaries, and is rallied by a messianic leader. As the authors of that work put it: ‘As recent developments in Latin America and elsewhere demonstrate, populism, as distinct from a traditional left, right or centrist political agenda, is a political style that develops within democracies, where a strong, charismatic leader amasses support by juxtaposing the righteous “people” with an out-of-touch, or worse, self-enriching “elite”.’ 

And in a globalised world, it often expressed itself in ethno-cultural nationalism, feeding on resentments about the iniquities of globalisation, the intrusiveness of international bureaucracies or the impact of large-scale migration.

Note that the grievances that animate populism are often genuine. They speak to frustrated aspirations and the dislocations of the modern world. The populist strategy is to appeal to ‘the people’ to claim what is theirs by right. It claims the mantle of radical democracy: follow the ‘will of the people’, irrespective of the restraints imposed by institutions. Indeed, its logical trajectory is either to undermine or suborn them. Ultimately, democracy itself becomes an inconvenience to be disregarded. 

Populists invariably propose a chimerical vision to a receptive audience, which they then lead to its doom. This should concern all of us that are protective of our civil liberties and long-term economic prospects, and wary of the potential for abuse by governments. As I wrote in my review, picking up on the visual image of a gesticulating rabble-rouser on a dusty field appealing to the desperate: ‘I am certainly concerned about that demagogue on the back of his bakkie, and not for the crude words or scatological images he might expound. I am concerned that a desperate and disillusioned crowd might have lost faith in what democracy offers now. And I am concerned for what that will mean for South Africa’s future.’

The idea of populism in South Africa has long been associated with former President Jacob Zuma. He always put himself forward as a man of the people, someone comfortable in his own skin, and with his human foibles. He had undoubted charisma (Helen Zille described him as the most charming man she’d ever met, an observation I’ve heard made by a number of people), and an ability to connect with an audience, not least when leading it in song through his fine baritone. He could exude a sense of empathy and understanding, a just-do-it approach to the country’s problems, in contrast to the intellectualisation of his predecessor in the presidency. And throughout his tenure, he was given to voicing views on gays, ‘clever’ blacks, gender equality, Christianity, on the relationship between the ruling party and the Constitution (the former being ‘more important’), on pet ownership and a great deal more besides. And beneath the jovial cadence of his signature tune, Umshini wami, lurked a hint of menace and a suggestion of longing for a time when politics was more starkly binary, the choices less complicated and moral virtue conferred by political positioning.

Now that Zuma has achieved a second comeback, and a political reincarnation as the leader and face of the uMkhonto weSizwe Party – unencumbered by whatever restraints the ANC legacy may previously have imposed on him – it’s possible to get a glimpse into what a Zuma-populist future would have in store.

The MK electoral manifesto is titled, revealingly, The People’s Mandate. Off the bat, this is textbook populist language. In self-conception, MK embodies ‘the people’, (something it shares with the ANC), and its ideas are theirs – a rather bald claim for a party that has not yet faced an election. Its theme is of ‘reclaiming’, a revealing turn of phrase that connotes restoration, justice and redemption by returning to the correct order of things.

(The back cover of the document helpfully explains the graphic on its cover. The three clenched  fists rising dramatically from the caption ‘Reclaiming our Birthright’ represent ‘the masses of South Africa rising to reclaim their rightful space in the development and political landscape of their beloved country’.)

The manifesto then goes on to detail grievances and point fingers at the people behind them. History since 1652 is one of ‘national shame’.  The transition to democracy in 1994 was a ‘strategic defeat’. South Africa is dominated by ‘a minority group with an alien culture’. The villainies of colonialism, White Monopoly Capital, ‘land thieves’ and ‘Western imperialist forces’ continue to threaten South Africa and the future of its people. In other words, enemies are everywhere, within and without.

Central to all of this is the Constitution – the ‘liberal Constitution’  ̶  which has curtailed the popular will (and also surrendered the country to venal moneyed interests), usurped power into unelected institutions and imposed a culturally incompatible order on an African society.

To deal with this, MK proposes a wholesale (and rather contradictory) reformulation of South Africa’s political system. Under MK, the intention would be to scrap the Constitution (it proposes a referendum on the matter, though its own position is quite clear), and replace it with untrammelled parliamentarianism. Traditional leaders – hardly avatars of democratic expression – are to be accommodated through an upper house of Parliament and would be recognised as a ‘new administrative arm of local government’. 

Unfettered majoritarianism for some, personal authority for others. Reflecting diverse interests within Zuma’s following – and, of course, his own predisposition – it’s hard to square that circle without resorting to the appeal of ascriptive identities. Race and culture, in other words. This the manifesto delivers generously. 

Under MK, the promise is that South Africa will be a properly African society. It envisages rooting out ‘all remnants of colonialism and apartheid from cultural and political life’. Faith and cultural groups would be engaged to assist in promoting ‘African spiritual and moral values’. Reparations would be paid to victims of ‘colonialism and apartheid and their descendants’. Extensive interventions would be directed at pushing a racial transformation agenda. This includes reorienting empowerment policy to focus on ownership and control. 

Fortifying this approach are a raft of expansive economic promises. All land will be nationalised without compensation and held in the custodianship of the state (a view that has been doing the rounds for years in the state, the ANC and the latter party’s offshoots). This would then be divided on an ‘equal basis among the farming population’. 

This is perhaps the least intrusive of MK’s intentions. All natural resources ‘including water, spectrum, and renewable energy resources’ will be nationalised too. It’s not entirely apparent how something like wind or sunshine will be commandeered, although perhaps the intention is to take wind and solar plants.

The latter possibility is not inconceivable, since the MK manifesto also proposes nationalising ‘strategic mining firms’, and ‘all large banks and the large insurance companies’. 

As should be clear, the manifesto consciously puts the state in the centre of its plans. This, it makes clear, is the path that successful developing countries have followed: ‘Besides land reform, China, Japan, South Korea etc. fostered transformative growth and technological advancement by limiting foreign capital, prioritising stable domestic savings, and directing credit to tradeable sectors while repressing the financial sector.’

So, MK favours extensive interventions and demands on business, as well as maintaining a grip on the country’s state-owned enterprises (these are important as infrastructure has deteriorated ‘since 2018’). All of this reflects a mode of dirigiste thinking that would not only be in place in Venezuela today, but in the ANC before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Even accepting some of these tendentious claims at face value, the manifesto evidences an unreality familiar to South Africa’s long-suffering people by showing no recognition of the pathologies that have brought the country – its state more than anything – to its knees. State-directed development demands a competent state, and South Africa hasn’t one to speak of. (Doubly ironic, given the ANC’s role in deskilling the state, and Zuma’s own responsibility in turbocharging this…)

Intrinsic to all of this, and in common with most populist ascendancies, there are promises to spend big , ‘like there’s no tomorrow’, as the old adage had it (and with this manifesto, there may well not be).  MK will ‘end austerity and neoliberalism’, an intriguing thought, though it assumes that ‘austerity’ is a choice made by parsimonious bureaucrats in Treasury who hold the keys to vaults full of gold and dollar bills. In reality, the economy is creaking under a tax burden it is increasingly unable to carry – and won’t be able to in the long term if growth isn’t massively accelerated – while consumption spending has long had precedence over investment. Just the way it’s been.

Nevertheless, the manifesto promises to implement National Health Insurance, ‘free’ education up to graduate level (they could hardly do otherwise) with budgets rising over time, to increase social grants, to recapitalise the taxi industry, and to set up a housing finance body modelled on the US’s Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. And also a plan to set up a Sovereign Wealth Fund. (And then there are the numerous other commitments that presuppose deep fiscal pockets.) This is all magic thinking. Aside from the implied suggestion that nationalising assets will deliver the goods and that the state would be excused from the dictates of economic rationality, there is no sense of how this could be financed. One hears the printing presses in motion, as has occurred in numerous other populist contexts…

South Africa is no stranger to populist politics; with MK, however, it seems to have reached a new intensity. It combines the personal appeal of a charismatic (and in some circles, ecstatically popular) leader, crude moral conservativism, appeals to cultural nativism, vengeful hostility to those it sees as outsiders, political carve-outs for its favoured power-brokers and extreme latitude for ‘the people’, under the guidance of a leadership that embodies them, naturally). Ironically for a party claiming to want to deal with the hardships of the present, MK’s manifesto is profoundly backward-looking. Reactionary, in the true sense of the word. 

That it is a message being offered – with credibility – to an electorate is a terrible indictment on the state of South Africa’s governance. Like almost every experiment in populism, it is also a sad and predictable formula for accelerated decline and the collapse of South Africa. It is likely that after the votes are counted, these ideas will have a firm bridgehead in Parliament, with consequent dangers for the country in years to come. South Africa and its people deserve better, but in a sense the populists are correct; they have the power to stop this, and the consequences will be on their (and our) heads. 

Terence Corrigan is the Project Manager at the Institute, where he specialises in work on property rights, as well as land and mining policy. A native of KwaZulu-Natal, he is a graduate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Pietermaritzburg). He has held various positions at the IRR, South African Institute of International Affairs, SBP (formerly the Small Business Project) and the Gauteng Legislature – as well as having taught English in Taiwan. He is a regular commentator in the South African media and his interests include African governance, land and agrarian issues, political culture and political thought, corporate governance, enterprise and business policy.