Populism not the answer

Despite the new focus on Africa’s angry youth, the EFF and the NEFF are the latest generation in a long line of African populist parties.

African-style  populism, which has swept many a party and leader  into  power  on  the  conti­nent following independence from colo­nialism after World War 2, has brought very little shared economic development or  quality  democracies.

Julius  Malema’s  Economic  Freedom Fighters (EFF) and Epafras Mukwiilon­ go’s  Namibian  Economic  Freedom Fighters  (NEFF),  although  different  in that  they  are  focusing  on  securing  the youth  vote,  are  the  latest  generation  in a  long  line  of  African  populist  parties.

The  EFF  and  the  NEFF  are  claiming to be “radical left”, “anti­-capitalist” and “anti-­imperialist”  movements,  calling for  the  nationalisation  of  mines  and banks  and  the  seizure  of  white­-owned land without compensation. They are, in fact, populist, albeit on the left flank of the political  spectrum.

Conventionally,  populism  is usually seen as political movements and leaders constructing in the popular image an imaginary battle of “us” (“the people”) or the poor masses, which have little economic  and  political  power,  against  the “them”, the elites dominating economic and  political  power.

African­-style populist parties in terms of politics are either left wing or conserv­ative, and in economic terms, use state capitalism, the free­market (or neo-liber­alism)  ideas  or  socialism.

Most of the first generation, post­-war African  independence  movements  of both  the  left  and  conservative  strands used  populism  effectively  to  rally  the masses  to  overthrow  colonialism.

These African populist regimes from both sides of the political spectrum po­litically  emphasised  the  fight  between the  “people”  and  the  colonial  powers, and in terms of the economy, called for state capitalism, which included nationalisation and empowerment or                   indigenisation  programmes.

In power, these African independence movements  stayed  the  populist  course, now  positioning  their  inherited  countries as the underdog, forever under  at­tack  by  enemies  —  supposedly  former colonial  powers  and  Western  imperial­ists.

Failures of these independence move­ment governments were often blamed on colonial  powers  and  Western  imperial­ists. Local critics of the state were often accused of being in the pay of these colo­nial  powers  and  imperialists.

In  power,  military  figures,  such  as Gaddafi  set  up  populist  regimes  based on  quasi  Marxist -­Leninism,  mixing  an African brand of socialism and state capi­talism with populism. In power, these po­pulist  military  leaders  also  portrayed their  countries  as  victims  under  attack from  Western  imperialists.

A group of African guerrilla populist leaders also fought independence ­movement  governments  based  on  populism, by  positioning  themselves  and  the  suf­fering masses as outsiders, and the inde­pendence  leaders  the  new  “them”,  in control of political and economic power and  corrupt.

A third group of populist African re­gimes have been ones that came to power at  the  end  of  the  Cold  War,  upstaging independence  movement  governments in power. The late Zambian former oppo­sition  leader  Frederick  Chiluba,  who formed  the  Movement  for  Multiparty Democracy  (MMD),  successfully  won the  1991  elections  against  Kenneth Kaunda,  the  independence  leader,  who
had  ruled  the  country  with  an  iron  fist since  independence.

In power, Chiluba became increasing­ly  populist,  attempting  to  change  the constitution to stay on for a third term, crushed  dissent  and  opposition  within his  own  party.

A new group of post­-global financial and Eurozone crisis populist parties are now  rising  in  Africa.  Michael  Sata  was elected in 2011 in Zambia on a populist platform, attacking Chinese investment and the corrupt political and economic elite in Zambia, and claiming to espouse free  market  economics.

In  May  2014,  Malawi’s  former  presi­dent  Joyce  Banda  reluctantly  accepted defeat in a national election after her rival Peter Mutharika, a former foreign minis­ter, won with 36,4% of the vote against Banda’s  20,2%.  Banda  took  power  in 2012 on populist, anti­-corruption campaign, when her predecessor died while president, also claiming to espouse free­-market  economics.

Banda initially won praise for selling off  the  presidential  jet  her  predecessor bought. However, it was later found that she had sold the jet to a company that allowed her to use it for free after the sale.

EFF and NEFF are only different from their predecessors in that they are focus­ing  mostly  on  the  continent’s  angry youth.

Africa needs quality democracies, in­clusive  economies  and  caring  leaders. Populism  is  not  the  answer.

Instructively,  the  African  governing parties and leaders the past century that genuinely pursued democracy, inclusive development and governed in the                           inter­ests of all their citizens have done better than  any  other  African  country.

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation and former Deputy Editor of The Sowetan newspaper.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, Gumede held several leadership positions in South African student, civics and trade union movements. He was a political violence mediator and area coordinator for the National Peace Committee during the multiparty negotiations for a democratic South Africa and was seconded to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the author of several number 1 bestsellers. His more recent books include: Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg); and South Africa in BRICS – Salvation or Ruination (Tafelberg).

To read publications by William Gumede on our website please click here.

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