Poverty stokes populism across southern Africa
30 September 2014, 11:04
Johannesburg - The last half century has been very good to southern Africa's political incumbents -- but persistent poverty and unemployment are now fuelling the rise of populists vowing to upend the economic status quo.
Of the 10 nations from Angola to Mozambique and points south, eight are still ruled by the party that held power after independence or apartheid.
Enveloped in the warm glow of liberation glory, the likes of the South Africa's ANC or Namibia's SWAPO have seen off assorted communists, freemarketeers and tribal or clique-based rivals with ease.
But these long-life parties now face a gathering storm.
Governments are increasingly seen as corrupt and corrupting, dishing out public posts and contracts to themselves and loyal allies while bending state institutions to their will.
More than 60 percent of southern Africans believe corruption extends even into the leader's office, according to Afrobarometer polls, which do not include Angola.
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In South Africa alone 86 percent of people believe there is some corruption in President Jacob Zuma's office.
Meanwhile, presidents, prime ministers and kings are facing increasingly young and increasingly urban populations who are hungry for change.
Youth unemployment often touches 50 percent and wealth remains almost as highly concentrated as it did during apartheid rule.
Amid this malaise some "savvy political entrepreneurs" are seizing the opportunity, according to Danielle Resnick, author of "Urban Poverty and Party Populism in African Democracies".
"Besides being anti-incumbent, they promise all things to all people -- better schools, hospitals, a growing economy," she said.
No one has tapped this political zeitgeist quite like South African rabble-rouser and ANC enfant terrible Julius Sello Malema.
After being kicked out of the ruling African National Congress, Malema led his Economic Freedom Fighters from political birth in 2013 to holding 25 seats in parliament in little over a year.
Having seized a slice of the domestic market, this self-styled "Commander in Chief" is now looking to export across the region.Domino theory
"Reasons in full for wishing to travel to the Republic of Botswana?" the visa application demanded.
"Political visit," Malema responded in block letters.
Unfortunately for Malema, Botswana's authorities understood that to mean "fomenting revolution".
The 33-year-old firebrand was denied a visa for one of Africa's most open democracies, missing the September campaign launch of his friend Arafat Kitso Khan.
Like Malema, Khan -- a youth leader for the opposition Botswana National Party -- has been shaking up national politics.
He wants "regime change" in Botswana and accuses the government of self-enrichment and bowing to Western "neo-colonialism".
Botswana's pro-Western President Ian Khama is in no mood to see Malema's success replicated his side of the border, or to have Malema rock the boat ahead of October elections.
Across southern Africa leaders like Khama are struggling to stem the tide.
On the western flank of the Kalahari semi-desert, another Malema-inspired party, the Namibian Economic Freedom Fighters, will compete in November elections.
It will run on a "radical left" platform, according to leader Epafras Mukwiilongo, a businessman turned politician.'A real impact'
Few expect these upstart parties to seize power any time soon.
"Their idea space is crowded with parties and empty of followers," said Bill Lindeke of Namibia's Institute for Public Policy Research.
Yet the populists are influencing key debates in southern Africa on issues like land reform, nationalisation of resources and black economic empowerment.
In South Africa, the ANC has responded to daily protests by promising a "second phase of transition" that echoes Malema's calls for more black ownership of business.
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"These parties will begin to have a real impact on policy, and not just rhetoric, when they make more substantial inroads among urban voters," said Mark Rosenberg of the political risk consultancy Eurasia Group.
He predicts a possible alliance with trade unions that would "pose the biggest threat to historical incumbents".
"Their emergence would probably drive a leftward shift by ruling parties -- especially if growth remains sluggish, inequalities sharpen and corruption scandals continue to mount."
In some places this shift has already gone beyond rhetoric.
In Zambia, President Michael Sata was elected in 2011 on the back of an populist anti-Chinese message, dubbing Beijing-backed firms that have flocked to the continent as "infestors".
Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe has, over 30 years, turned populist anti-Western rhetoric into a fine art, grabbing land from white farmers and expelling foreign firms to back up his words with deeds.
The experience of Zimbabwe under Mugabe -- as well as Latin American countries like Venezuela under Hugo Chavez -- seems to show that populist policies can lead to unpopular outcomes.
"Populist parties are a double-edged sword," according to Resnick. "On the one hand, they are broadly positive for generating democratic participation and inclusion of marginalised groups.
"On the other hand, they can create false expectations about what is achievable if the leaders of such parties are ultimately elected into office.
"More troubling is that, as governing parties, they tend to exhibit autocratic tendencies."
Faced with incessant problems and entrenched incumbents, Southern Africans seem increasingly willing to take that risk.
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