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  • Jerry Schuitema

Popular or populist?

President Ramaphosa’s difficult choice.

Not all popular leaders are good; and not all good leaders are popular. Sometimes the right thing is not the popular thing, and often the popular thing is not the right thing. It’s often been said that one of the flaws of democracy is that it blurs that logic, giving rise to a political structure that thrives on false promises and wild rhetoric disconnected from reality and creating a dangerous gap between it and expectations.

We call that populism and it is routinely used by opposition parties to gain power. It’s a highly questionable technique which does little more than inflame expectations and help sow public discord. Populism globally in recent times has helped strengthen opposing parties, in some cases putting them in power where they not only have to backtrack on populist rhetoric but are “recaptured” by the establishment. The U.S. and France are examples.

“Cometh the hour; cometh the man” is a biblical saying that can be applied to Cyril Ramaphosa and while he has all the right attributes to exploit that to its fullest, he has openly conceded that “we must ride this wave” (while we can); and has strengthened it through promenade jogs and township walks. Charismatic, charming, accessible, affable and somewhat inspiring are mantles that fit him well. But one would be less than candid if one did not concede that in no small measure his popularity has been given a massive boost by simply being an alternative to his much maligned predecessor.

When that honeymoon fades, and when the fear of a revival of Zuma factional support starts to diminish, he will have to find a way of steering the ship between remaining popular without being populist. That will confront him soon in an election year where opposition parties are hell-bent on ensuring that the governing party does not regain what it lost during the Zuma era. It’s already happening, forcing Ramaphosa to look beyond the low hanging fruit that Zuma left him such as unleashing enforcement watchdogs on the corrupt, stabilising the fiscus; shaking up SOE leadership; and committing to a reconfiguration of the executive which most interpret as meaning a substantial cut in the size of cabinet in future. Most of these may lose him some factional support, but will certainly gain him popular support.

The more difficult path lies in the deeper, ideological issues that divide the country and where populist exploitation is at its strongest. These include land reform and concentration of capital. They are at the root of key issues such as Radical Economic Transformation, monopoly capital, WMC, state capture, inequality, cadre deployment, empowerment, inclusivity and in turn many other related issues.

Populism thrives on ignorance and incoherence. Having followed these debates intensely for decades, I am of the firm belief that the most important thing that has to be done before weighing in with legislation and execution is to create a much higher level of coherence and comprehension. On the land issue, the line has not been drawn clearly enough between food security and black economic empowerment. The vague assumption that they are not mutually exclusive may have some substance, but ultimately a single priority has to be defined. This can only be done when we stop thinking of land as political territory and more as a means of feeding the masses. That priority then has to become the ultimate purpose of land ownership – one that can be shared by all. (See article Grabbing land in La-la-land here.)

A greater degree of coherence in and understanding of the issue of capital concentration offers much promise of finding a middle ground where we are currently divided the most. Stripped of all its ideological, racial, and populist claptrap, many may be surprised to find common cause on a global scale of the distaste of what the concentration of capital ownership, control and management has created. (See article here.)

The argument of maximising capital efficiencies has worn very thin against other outcomes such as inequality, state capture, declining innovation and competition, and tax evasion to name just a few. Market forces work at their best when they are fragmented, decentralised and free. Coupled with the rampant growth of financialisation and debt, the global economy itself has been placed on a knife edge where it can easily tumble into recession or even extended depression. Corporate malfeasance or fraud can destroy the wealth of many; collusion between one or two big players can warp price discovery, and large corporate lobby groups have inordinate power in swaying the state to serve their vested interests.

E.F.F. Commander-in-chief, Julius Malema may find it strange to discover some resonance between his views and that of Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, to be found here in a recent article by Smith scholar, Paul Sagar. Capital concentration virtually guarantees some form of state capture, while true defenders of free enterprise find it difficult to reconcile capital concentration with free markets. It has become Capitalism’s Achilles heel.

Ramaphosa does not have to fall into a populist trap. His experience in labour, business and politics equips him well to create clarity, coherence and comprehension and define a productive middle ground that is far less divisive than what we have. He can indeed chart a new course for the nation.

Time will tell.

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