Populism at the heart of the 2024 elections

by Jun 13, 2024Election, Feature

This article was first published on the Elitsha website. We are publishing a variety of views on the results of the election in order to stimulate debate.

Populism defined the recent elections, inviting reactionary ideas into the mainstream.

According to the author, the recent general election has emboldened the socially and economically conservative political parties. Photo by Mzi Velapi 

What does the outcome of the 2024 general elections tell us about the consciousness of South African voters?

It is a mixed picture with five main tendencies. The overwhelming majority of voters chose the broad ANC family as their elected public representatives. At the same time, voters enabled the ultra-liberal Democratic Alliance to emerge as the most advantaged strategic victor and also emboldened conservative right-wing parties to gain an important foothold in the political system (the Patriotic Alliance at 2.06%, Action SA at 1.2% and the Cape Coloured Congress at 0.23%). Also present was some space given to new liberal parties to enter the political terrain (Rise Mzansi at 0.42% and Build One South Africa (Bosa) at 0.41%). The fifth main tendency is the voters’ neglect of left and radical nationalist organisations represented by the Africa People’s Convention at 0.08%, Azapo at 0.12%, and the PAC at 0.23%.

The DA is poised to benefit the most from the GNU

Beyond these five general tendencies, what should not be forgotten is that the main strategic victor of these elections is the DA. It has seen its long-term goal of the ANC dropping below 50% achieved while it has retained a solid white block, is the majority in Coloured and Indian areas, and has made important inroads into black areas. And it is the one poised to benefit the most from the proposed government of national unity. Even if it is not part of the government, its strategic position remains, given its immediate access to a skilled social base (professionals such as architects, lawyers, engineers, and so on) in its governance of Cape Town and other Western Cape municipalities.

The Democratic Alliance is poised to benefit the most from the proposed government of national unity. Photo by Mzi Velapi

Unlike the ANC which has limited access to such a skills base, this social web advantages the DA in a huge way. In addition, the economic policies it stands for are hegemonic in the dominant liberal media and associated think-tanks (such as the South African Institute of Race Relations, the Centre for Development and Enterprise, and the universities). Further, the DA strategy is for the long haul to assuming political power. And it will be effective in driving such a strategy, more so as a bumbling and corrupt ANC will be punch-drunk and strategically dislodged for a long while. All these factors will enable public discourse and consciousness to consent to the apparently efficient and well-spoken machinery of DA rule.

The strategic positioning of the DA is likely to leave little room for the new liberal parties of Rise Mzansi and Bosa. This may often lead to conflicts between the DA and these parties as they compete to be the intellectual leaders of the liberal agenda.

The NDR block

While the DA is the main strategic victor in the long-term and while analyses of the elections have focused on the 17% drop of the ANC from 57% in 2019 to 40% today, this focus misses the core concerns which motivate what has consistently been the largest voting block throughout the six general elections we have held since 1994.  

The ANC, the MK Party and the EFF all broadly subscribe to the national democratic revolution. This voting block is what is best regarded as the NDR block (which refers to black working class and unemployed voters who, in the 2024 elections, chose the ANC at 40.18%, the MK Party at 14.58% and the EFF at 9.52%: these three parties all broadly subscribe to the ANC theory and strategy of the national democratic revolution). Their combined vote makes up a total of 64.28%. This total is 1.63% above the 62.65% which the ANC achieved in the freedom vote in 1994 when led by Nelson Mandela and 5.41% less than the highest vote of 69.69% that the ANC achieved when led by Thabo Mbeki in 2004. This is significant. The shared strategic concerns of this voting block are the unfinished task of national liberation, redistribution, economic transformation and service delivery. However, the EFF and MK Party splits show that this NDR block is on a strategic decline in the longer-term.

The combined vote of the NDR block makes up a total of 64.28%. Photo by Mzi Velapi

It will be silly to reduce the significant support that the MK Party received in the KwaZulu-Natal province, as Gwede Mantashe’s glibly did, to an ethnic vote and tribal consciousness on the part of voters in that province. This is the same incorrect conclusion that President Cyril Ramaphosa reached in response to the July 2021 riots, which were clearly linked to the conviction and imprisonment of former President Jacob Zuma. Zulu cultural identity and symbolism are an important arsenal in Zuma’s strategy but they are not enough to explain the vote.

During the unrest in July 2021, more than 350 people lost their lives, and property damage amounted to nearly R50 billion. Archive photo by Nokulunga Majola

Rather, far more important here are Zuma’s status and continuing influence in the ANC, and also the broader socio-economic crisis that successive ANC governments have not been able to resolve. Despite his severe shortcomings as a leader – his being implicated in state capture and his untransformative and reactionary political programme – Zuma has successfully positioned himself as a champion of poor and working people. Remember, this was how he won over the SACP and Cosatu to rise above the arms deal corruption charges (that he has never answered to in a court of law), all the way to defeat Thabo Mbeki in the race to be the ANC’s and the country’s president.

Authoritarian populism

Zuma’s populism mixes real material alienation with popular sentiment. In essence, Zuma represents an authoritarian populism which is smart enough to juxtapose ‘the people’ against the ‘elite’. In this, he has successfully distinguished himself from the political and economic establishment which Cyril Ramaphosa is comfortable in. This establishment is corrupt and self-serving. Zuma has consistently succeeded in portraying himself as a victim of the political, economic, cultural, and media establishment who he has depicted as united in vilifying him while also placing their own interests above the interests of ‘the people’. A woman interviewed by Newzroom Afrika complained that the proposed government of national unity (GNU) would be unfair because it would “exclude the MK Party we voted for from parliament”. Her conflation of the GNU with parliament demonstrates how Zuma’s populism deliberately mixes real material alienation from the political economy with popular sentiment. In a sense, this popular sentiment develops limited agency and coheres as a conscious rejection of the elites by giving popular consent to populist politicians while leaving the real power dynamic unaddressed.

Zuma represents an authoritarian populism which is smart enough to juxtapose ‘the people’ against the ‘elite’. Photo by Mzi Velapi

Zuma’s radical economic transformation is a ruse. Indeed, Zuma’s populism appeals primarily because there is a material reality of inequality, poverty and unemployment, which is a direct consequence of the ANC’s acquiescence to a neo-liberal order and capitalism in general. Ironically, Zuma was a central part of forces within the ANC that accepted and advanced this status quo. His latter-day positioning in favour of radical economic transformation is a ruse that does not explain how his government started severe austerity or the continued corporatisation and hollowing out of public enterprises, or the continued permission of capital flight. 

Broader populism

Populism has emboldened conservative forces. Populist politics is not confined to Zuma – the DA liberal establishment has also appealed to populism to build a public identity that separates itself from the ANC establishment. The same with that of the ethno-nationalism and xenophobia of the Patriotic Alliance (PA). Even the long-established petit-bourgeois Herman Mashaba has successfully brushed off his long-standing incorporation as a junior partner into the apartheid business elite and fired sustained shots at the ANC elite. In the case of the PA, ‘the people’ have been defined along ethnic-racial lines based on apartheid’s racial categories. For his part, Mashaba has whipped up popular anger against migrants. In other words, populism has enabled the emboldening and rise of these conservative forces and discourses.

The recent elections have emboldened conservative right-wing parties to gain an important foothold in the political system. Photo by Mzi Velapi 

Zuma’s populism has been moralistic and eclectic as it clutches for coherence from contradictory ideas. All these strands of populism are incoherent as they do not provide a programmatic basis to successfully address the systemic and structural foundations of the socio-economic crisis that gives rise to them. In contrast to coherent ideologies which are founded on critical analysis and contain far-reaching ideas about social transformation, populism is thin and incoherent. It is no wonder then that Zuma’s populism has been moralistic and eclectic as it clutches for coherence by simultaneously linking with a diversity of often contradictory ideas: radical economic transformation together with conservative social ideas and exclusive African nationalism. In this way, Zuma has successfully given meaning and comprehension of the socio-economic and political realities to his social base. The same with the PA and the Cape Coloured Congress enabling their shared constituency to understand and interpret its socio-economic conditions from an ethno-nationalist lens. All these populists have worked with the nested essentialism of racialised cultural identity to cement real grievances.

Populism is not popular self-empowerment

This instrumentalisation of populism by self-interested politicians is different from building, advancing and consolidating the agency of progressive, popular forces and their movements – this would be about emancipatory social action by popular forces to substantively challenge oppressive and exploitative power systems in favour of thorough-going systemic and structural transformation. This remains the core challenge facing poor and working people.

Mazibuko Kanyiso Jara is a member of the Amandla! Collective.

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