Pop­ulism is a loser’s game

CityPress - - Voices - Mondli Makhanya voices@city­press.co.za

For­mer US sec­re­tary of state John Kerry rolled into town this week to talk about one of the things that is keep­ing the world’s sane peo­ple awake: the rise of pop­ulism. Kerry, who stood against the in­cum­bent Ge­orge W Bush for the pres­i­dency in 2004 and then served as Barack Obama’s in­ter­na­tional points­man in the sec­ond term, is, at 73 years old, a grand pa­tri­arch of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. I’m not sure whether it is the years or the tens of thou­sands of kilo­me­tres of cross­con­ti­nen­tal travel, but his gait is now be­tray­ing his age. The brain, how­ever, is be­tray­ing noth­ing. He is as sharp as a brand-new ra­zor.

At this week’s Old Mu­tual Wis­dom Fo­rum, Kerry laid bare the bank­ruptcy of Don­ald Trump, and the clear and present dan­ger that his pop­ulism poses to the world. He out­lined, with pas­sion, how Trump is tak­ing his coun­try and the world back­wards, all in the name of ful­fill­ing his vac­u­ous slo­gan of “mak­ing Amer­ica great again”.

Be­sides ev­ery­thing else he stands for, Trump has an­gered Kerry on two main counts – fun­da­men­tal is­sues that could shape the fu­ture of the planet and its in­hab­i­tants. It was on Kerry’s watch that the US joined the rest of the world’s sane na­tions in sign­ing the his­toric Paris Agree­ment on cli­mate change.

So pas­sion­ate was Kerry about the Paris break­through that he had his grand­daugh­ter on his lap when he signed the doc­u­ment, a sym­bolic but per­ti­nent mes­sage that it was about pre­serv­ing the earth for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.

The other is­sue on which Trump touched Kerry on his stu­dio was the deal to pre­vent Iran from pur­su­ing a nu­clear arms pro­gramme. The ne­go­ti­a­tions lead­ing up to the deal saw the foreign min­is­ters of two sworn en­emy coun­tries meet face to face for the first time in 35 years. The even­tual agree­ment – signed by sev­eral world pow­ers – en­sured Iran was hand­cuffed and de­prived of the free­dom to ever be­come a nu­clear power. It is re­garded as one of the great lega­cies of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. Kerry is rightly very proud to have been at the cen­tre of it all.

Then along came Trump, de­ter­mined to undo all the achieve­ments of Obama. Driven by ma­ni­a­cal pop­ulism and an un­con­trol­lable ha­tred of Obama, Trump set in mo­tion the dis­man­tling of his sig­na­ture projects. The Paris ac­cord and the Iran deal – so cru­cial for the world’s fu­ture – fell vic­tim to this. Trump’s ac­tions dis­re­garded the fact that his ad­min­is­tra­tion could have reaped great benefits from Obama’s poli­cies, benefits he could nar­cis­sis­ti­cally claim credit for. How­ever, all he could think of was the sup­port of the red­necks to whom he had fed pop­ulist rhetoric dur­ing his 2016 elec­tion cam­paign.

What Trump is learn­ing is that an elec­tion won on a pop­ulist ticket be­comes a headache for the vic­tor. The vic­tor is expected to ful­fil even the most ridicu­lous of prom­ises, or risk los­ing the adu­la­tion of his gullible con­stituency. Fail­ure to de­liver breeds rest­less­ness, in­sta­bil­ity and a break­down in trust in pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions.

This is a les­son the pop­ulist camp in the ANC’s lead­er­ship race should well be aware of. They have been run­ning around the coun­try promis­ing the peo­ple that if their vi­sion of rad­i­cal eco­nomic trans­for­ma­tion is im­ple­mented, all their prob­lems will van­ish at the speed it takes to make in­stant noo­dle soup.

At times, it has been dif­fi­cult to dif­fer­en­ti­ate be­tween what they prom­ise and the stuff that is writ­ten in Prophet­ess Abe­d­ina’s pam­phlets and in the dec­la­ra­tions made by dodgy pas­tors. Branches have been made to be­lieve that the sil­ver bul­let to oblit­er­ate poverty and end in­equal­ity is to solve the land question overnight and par­cel out wealth like Christ­mas presents.

What we learn from his­tory – dis­tant and con­tem­po­rary – is that it is a bad idea to raise ex­pec­ta­tions. There will al­ways be a chunk of the pop­u­la­tion whose hopes will be raised. And in that group there will be those will­ing to act on bro­ken prom­ises.

Should their ticket win in the ANC elec­tive con­fer­ence in De­cem­ber, the pop­ulists will be faced with the im­pos­si­ble task of try­ing to ful­fil these im­pos­si­ble prom­ises on the back of a tank­ing econ­omy.

Even when the econ­omy does be­gin to pick up, it will be ages be­fore any of the prom­ises can be met. More likely, these crazy so­lu­tions are likely to send the econ­omy into re­verse gear, thus breed­ing even more anger and back­lash.

And if they do not win, the blame for the fail­ure to achieve in­stant re­sults will fall on the vic­tors, who will be pun­ished for prom­ises they did not make.

Ei­ther way, ev­ery­body loses.

The ANC’s De­cem­ber con­fer­ence may be what sports teams call a do or die con­test. But it need not be the thing that puts us in the ter­mi­nal ward. The pop­ulist cru­sade may do just that.

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