Shorn of their most important campaign weapon, scandal-ridden former President Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s biggest opposition parties are turning to populism as they scramble for votes in the most competitive election since the end of apartheid.
The two main challengers to the ruling African National Congress are increasingly echoing the anti-immigrant and race-baiting bias that’s come to dominate politics in the US under Donald Trump and President Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil, as well as Italy and parts of Eastern Europe.
“Secure our borders” reads a campaign poster of the second-biggest party, the Democratic Alliance. Its spokesman on immigration proposes a “humane” deportation program for undocumented migrants he says are a major source of crime and who take welfare checks and anti-Aids drugs meant for South Africans. The signature poster of the Economic Freedom Fighters, the third-biggest party, features a picture of its leader, Julius Malema, emblazoned with “Son of The Soil,” a slogan that alienates Asian, mixed-race and white South Africans.
“In South Africa, as in many countries around the world right now, you have this fairly rapid creep to the right and nativism,” said Claude Baissac, the head of Johannesburg-based political risk consultancy Eunomix Business & Economics. “Trump and Bolsonaro made it not only acceptable but fashionable. The DA has very cynically and opportunistically taken the nationalist route.”
In the case of the DA, analysts say the strategy threatens to alienate its traditionally liberal base. It could also heighten tensions in a country already riven by racial divisions and periodic xenophobic violence.
Anti-foreigner violence led to more than 60 deaths and 50 000 being made homeless in 2008 when footage of a Mozambican man being doused in petrol and burnt to death made international headlines. Similar violence has regularly resurfaced since, including this year.
The dilemma for the two parties is renewed interest in the ANC after the popular Cyril Ramaphosa replaced Zuma as president last year and pledged to crack down on corruption. That’s left both the DA and EFF seeking ways to gain voters’ attention three years after municipal elections handed the ruling party its lowest share of the vote since it took power in 1994.
“Foreigners are resented — we’ve seen waves of xenophobic violence. The DA is catching that wave,” said Nic Borain, an independent political analyst. “It’s going to unsettle some of its traditional supporters. It’s a sacrifice they’ve made to their ideology because they assume they will get more support from the black middle class.”
While the EFF has regularly criticised white South Africans since its formation in 2013, with Malema having faced several hate speech charges, it has widened its attacks in recent months to other racial groups.
Last year, party Deputy President Floyd Shivambu accused Ismail Momoniat, a South African of Asian origin who’s a deputy director general of the National Treasury, of having an anti-black agenda.
EFF spokesman Mbuyiseni Ndlozi last month accused former Finance Minister Trevor Manuel, who is mixed-race, of facilitating the appointment of another mixed-race South African as head of the revenue service because of business and family ties. Manuel has denied the allegation and threatened legal action. Ndlozi didn’t answer calls made to his mobile phone.
“They know it’s the easiest way to grab headlines,” said Ralph Mathekga, an independent political analyst. “You look at the soft spots in society — they know it’s race relations. They just stoke the fires.”
Most analysts trace the DA’s turn to the policy to the political ascent of Herman Mashaba, a brash self-made multi-millionaire, who’s now the DA’s mayor of Johannesburg. He has regularly described mainly black African undocumented migrants as criminals and has spoken of the need for a “shock and awe” campaign to drive them out of the run-down inner city.
“ Herman Mashaba started this anti-African policy,” said Moeletsi Mbeki, deputy chairman of the South African Institute for International Affairs. “They are now looking for an expanded, African, middle-class vote.”
DA leader Mmusi Maimane said the policy is misunderstood and the party’s stance is a sensible approach to the number of immigrants coming into South Africa that cause social tensions by increasing the risk of “unskilled migration” in a nation that has an unemployment rate of 27%. He played down the comments by his spokesman on the issue, Jacques Julius, stressing the position on deportation isn’t in the DA’s election manifesto.
“All health-care facilities in South Africa, all security agencies are now being used effectively to police, to help provide health care, to provide education for the entire sub-Saharan Africa,” Maimane said in March 18 interview.
Yet the number of immigrants, at between three and five% of the population, has stayed constant since the mid-1990s, said Loren Landau, chair of the African Centre for Migration and Society at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand. Municipalities face more problems coping with the larger number of South African migrants from rural areas, he said.
Political parties “feel that this is a competitive election and they need to compete to win votes,” said Landau. “Xenophobia acts as a distraction from real issues. It’s dangerous to immigrants and its dangerous to the country.”
© 2019 Bloomberg L.P