Populism not the answer

Despite the new focus on Africa’s angry youth, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in South Africa, and the Namibian Economic Freedom Fighters (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 EFF and Epafras Mukwiilongo’s  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 free-market (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 Muammar  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).

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