South Africa is the latest country to see a democratic swing to populism over liberal politics

Hello and Goodbye?
Julius Malema of EFF and Mmusi Maimane of Democratic Alliance
Hello and Goodbye? Julius Malema of EFF and Mmusi Maimane of Democratic Alliance
Image: Reuters
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A South African party committed to liberal values has seen its strong support decline for the first time in democratic history, scuppering a roadmap to take power by 2024 that was over 10 years in the making.

Meanwhile, a populist party that was born just before the previous election has shot to success in the polls with over 10% of the vote.

The contrasting fortunes of the liberal Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) speak to a paradigm shift among voters both in South Africa and globally. As we saw with the US election that delivered Donald Trump to power, liberal voices perceived as elite are increasingly rejected by voters who have to contend with worsening economic conditions.

The votes have been counted and the final result is ready to be announced in South Africa’s general election held this week – delayed only by objections from smaller parties that are currently being dealt with. After the majority’s sixth time choosing national leadership since Nelson Mandela first ran in 1994, the most major shifts weren’t to the monolith ANC that was his political home.

ANC, the liberation party, retained a comfortable margin with 57.5% of the vote and arrested its declining support—for now. This was thanks in large part to the party’s leader and current South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, who is on a cleanup drive after nearly a decade of ruinous rule under his predecessor Jacob Zuma.

The most interesting story of political shift was in the opposition benches.

The DA, formerly known as the Democratic Party (DP), has been the country’s official opposition party since 1999, but has struggled to shake the perception of being a “white party”. That changed around 2006 when the party sketched out an ambitious vision to move off the opposition benches and into government. Young guns in the party shook up the old, white establishment and put together a document titled ‘Becoming a Party for All the People: A New Approach for the DA’. The party used its foothold in a coalition government in the city of Cape Town to wrestle control of the larger Western Cape province away from the ANC, in 2009, and worked to prove its governing ability.

It also tried to appeal to black voters by changing their policies and upping the pigment of their leadership. The DA elected their first black leader, Mmusi Maimane—originally styled as the “Obama of South Africa”—in 2015.

The joke ran that many black South Africans voted for the DA secretly while slamming the party publicly. It might have been true then if the vote was anything to go. With just 1.8% of the vote in its previous incarnation as the DP in 1994, it grew steadily after the adoption of its new strategy to a whopping 22.23% of the vote in the last election in 2014. It was a vindication of years of planning.

But since then the party has traversed a bumpy road. Wars waged by factions within the party opposed to racial transformation spilled over into the public. Party elders raised the alarm that the party was drifting away from its liberal roots. That coupled with public spats with key black DA leaders brewed mistrust among voters. Its former leader, Helen Zille, has become a massive liability with a penchant for racially inflammatory tweets. The party’s attempts to forge a clean record in government was undermined by a few scandals.

This week’s election, according to their original roadmap, should have seen the party grow its support far more and enter into a coalition government nationally. Instead, their support has fallen for the first time in democratic history—a small dip, but a big removal from their original ambitions.

It was also due in part to a small, conservative Afrikaans party, the Freedom Front Plus (FF+), unexpectedly doubling their support. They appealed to conservative DA voters, scared off by the party’s transformation project.

The Freedom Front’s best showing since it first marshaled fearful white Afrikaners in 1994 when apartheid ended is indicative of a swing towards identity politics in this election.

Enter the EFF in 2014, a self-proclaimed radical black party that is the only one of the big three parties to have grown its support this election. It started when a group of ambitious, savvy leaders of the ANC’s youth league, headed by Julius Malema, were kicked out of the ruling party in 2013 and formed their own political home. Their rapid rise—first at 6% of the 2014 vote after just a few months of existence, and now over 10%—proved a key point about the new party: They didn’t need to try and speak to the black majority. They just did, and droves have heard them and publicly embraced the party and its leaders – despite allegations of corruption against Malema.

The 10% result is not a true reflection of the party’s popularity in the country. The EFF’s most fervent supporters are the young, who don’t quite translate their loyalty to votes. The party’s leader, Malema, is arguably the most charismatic leader in the political landscape and is mobbed by fans wherever he goes. Despite their relatively smaller numbers in parliament, they single-handedly changed the tenor of the fight to oust Zuma.

The EFF espouses a radical left policy platform, but critics say their election promises regarding jobs, grants and more are impossible—and even dangerous.

The party’s promise to double social grants, which, along with other lofty promises, could bankrupt the country. Their biggest and most controversial call is to expropriate land without compensation, answering the majority’s deep cry for economic inclusion with a simplistic answer that is ill-thought out. The party’s policy says the state should own all land and lease it out.

They make flashy undertakings to a desperate electorate that they don’t have to deliver on given that it’ll be a long time before they’ll actually be in government. They also can play the long game, with its key leaders in their thirties.

These same leaders are also given to inflammatory, populist statements. Malema has faced hate speech complaints for offensive, racially-loaded comments—though he was cleared on the latest of these. His deputy mounted a racially-charged attack against a senior treasury official involved in investigations into corruption allegations linked to the party. The EFF’s leaders have behaved violently towards journalists and face continued allegations of corruption.

Yet the party also departs from the populist wave across global politics in particular ways.

They have taken pains to condemn xenophobia, despite it being an easy win not to do so with high negative sentiment towards African migrants.

Alarmingly other parties, including the DA, exploited this sentiment as a campaigning platform—promising to clamp down on illegal foreigners. Their statements are incredibly dangerous in a country where violence against African migrants is frequent and fatal.

The EFF, then, is difficult to write off, despite the harshest of their critics likening them to fascists and dictators in the making. They are the only party run mostly by young people. The ANC is now almost entirely devoid of a new generation to carry on the baton from the aging group who fought against apartheid and are still in control.

The EFF’s rapid rise to popularity concerns their critics and much of the middle-class. But it is indicative of a global pendulum swing towards parties that speak directly to the concerns of the majority—be they credible or not.

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