16/01/2017 04:58 SAST | Updated 16/01/2017 04:58 SAST

South Africa Must Heed The Populist Rise

We may be far from the United States and Western Europe, but we are not immune to the effects of the recent waves of populism sweeping the world.

Gerald Herbert/AP
Nigel Farage, ex-leader of the British UKIP party, speaks as the then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, left, listens, at Trump's campaign rally in Jackson, Miss., Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016.

The ascendency of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States truly made 2016 an awful year. It was the final nail in what had already become a rather dented coffin as Brexit, post-truth politics and fake news dominated the year's political discourse. Over the course of the last two years, we have seen the ideological zeitgeist of our time shift dramatically towards the right as the rise of neo-fascist ideas spread across Europe and into the United States.

This year promises to be an even more important one as the stakes are raised once more with key votes taking place in France, Germany and the Netherlands. The incumbent French President François Hollande has already made it clear that he is not standing for re-election and Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union party saw significant losses inflicted upon them by the right-wing in the German local elections last year.

Right-wing populism is on the rise globally as more and more left-wing spaces fall to neo-fascist ideas and rhetoric. This was overwhelmingly clear in the European Union Referendum held in the United Kingdom last year. We witnessed a cultural split as scare tactics beat out facts based policy. Working-class nationalists and those in the countryside voted to leave the EU whilst those with a more globalist viewpoint voted to remain.

The Brexit vote was the most prominent indicator that a Trump victory was a possibility.

This issue shares a striking similarity with what went on in the United States. Trump appealed to the base instincts of the working-class that have felt for a while now that their country has been taken away from them due to the influx of immigrants. The Brexit vote was the most prominent indicator that a Trump victory was a possibility.

Prominent 'Leave' supporter Boris Johnson and former UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage waged a successful campaign against the former prime minister, David Cameron, and deceived the British public into a vote to leave the European Union. The campaign was based almost entirely on anti-immigrant rhetoric and the lie that a sum of £350 million (R5.8 billion) being sent to the EU every week would then be spent on the National Health Service.

This year South Africa may find itself battling the same populist ideology as our European counterparts. The African National Congress has already been employing this tactic for some time as President Zuma demonstrated when he said that if he were to resign he would be giving in to 'monopoly capital' as opposed to countless of other misdeeds he has committed that would easily warrant resignation in many other countries. The same is evident with the treatment of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. The Hawks applied a similar strategy when they tried to go after Mr Gordhan as the executive tried to get its hands on the country's purse strings. It would be safe to assume that the succession battle within the ANC will see much of the same tactics as the candidates try to gather branch support using any popular means necessary.

What about the opposition parties? Well, they aren't immune from this new global political discourse either. The times have changed and so to must the rhetoric if our opposition parties are to hold the ground they gained following last year's local government elections. The Economic Freedom Fighters will continue their popular crusade against the ANC's inaction with regards to the land issue. The Democratic Alliance has already been plagued by the idea that they are committing treason by talking to Taiwanese government officials.

People would rather believe what they feel to be true than what is actually true. There's a word for that it's 'Truthiness', which was coined by Stephen Colbert in 2005 and it means seeming or being felt to be true, even if not necessarily true. This is a dangerous line to be walking and with the rise of fake news and populism around the world, South Africans can ill afford to buy into these ideas without pause for concern and consideration. Local politics has never been more competitive than it is now and an uninformed electorate could threaten to take the sting out of the competitiveness or it could serve to embolden a popular policy idea. This is not always a good thing as popular policy can prove to be quite detrimental to a country. Brexit served up a great economic knock to the UK and has placed them in the uncomfortable position of now having to negotiate new trade deals.

We are heading for a turning point in our politics and once we reach it there is a very real chance that the rhetoric used during that time could fundamentally shape the course of the country for future generations. We must tread lightly and question everything we see and hear.