Helen Zille, the Premier of the Western Cape, and former DA leader, says that it has become easy to mobilise a populist agenda on the basis of race in South Africa.
Zille was delivering a keynote address at the Liberal International 60th Congress in Mexico City, last week.
In an extract taken from the premiere’s address, published by Polticsweb, Zille questioned whether it is possible for emerging democracies with developing economies, to avoid the trap of populism in its various manifestations – including racial nationalism.
“Often, people do have legitimate grievances rooted in historical injustice and dispossession. In a country like South Africa where an oppressive state dispossessed people on the basis of race, while denying them agency to change their circumstances, it is understandable that people now look to the state for restitution and opportunity – again on the basis of race.
“It is easy to give deep-seated historical grievance a contemporary face. There is sufficient historical truth to the accusation that ‘whites’ are responsible for black oppression and dispossession. These broad-brush racial generalisations are anathema to liberals, who believe that each individual should be judged in their own right, rather than be labelled as a representative of a “collective” on the basis of a physical attribute (such as colour).
“However, there is sufficient basis to this generalisation to make it easy to mobilise a populist agenda on the basis of race in South Africa. Whites fulfil all the criteria for becoming a scapegoat for contemporary South Africa’s problems and policy failures — just as ‘the British’ remain the scapegoat for populist racial nationalism in Zimbabwe, 35 years after independence,” Zille said.
The politician said that, unlike developed democracies, countries in sub-Saharan Africa tend to have a very fragile middle class. Poverty and inequality remain the subcontinent’s primary problems, Zille said.
The Western Cape Premiere said that the difference between the racial/ethnic populists on the one hand, and liberals on the other, is not disagreement about the problem, but about the solutions.
“We reject ‘populist’ solutions that lead to the ‘capture’ of state institutions by the ruling elite to defend their concentration of power, cronyism, corruption and self-enrichment, behind a veneer of populist rhetoric, welfare payments, and food parcels at election time.
“It is the patronising modern equivalent of ‘bread and circuses’ and will have the same result, unless liberals can find sufficient traction to mobilise support for sustainable solutions to poverty,” Zille said.
“In South Africa, we have failed to convince enough people that focusing primarily on ‘racial transformation’ will inevitably lead to intense conflict over a shrinking pool of jobs, rather than the growth of new jobs – which is the only foundation on which economic inclusion and genuine transformation can occur.
“And we have certainly failed to convince people that the state cannot solve the unemployment crisis without a vibrant and growing private sector,” Zille said.
Instead of regarding entrepreneurs and investors as their best allies in job creation, Zille said that the ruling party – together with some trade unions, and the unemployed – tend to regard businessmen as ‘the enemy’.
“Inevitably, in these circumstances, the default is to mobilise around ‘identity’ politics, which makes it easier to whip up grievances and target scapegoats. The only thing that is currently holding the fragile and fractured governing alliance together in South Africa, is their joint focus on race and history.
“Blaming apartheid and “whiteness” for the deteriorating economic situation is a diversion from the debate we should be having about policy solutions required to address the unemployment crisis. This diversion is also entrenching racial divisions, which makes economic growth increasingly elusive,” Zille said.