Migrants. Unemployment. Crime. And scapegoating. With South African politicians across the political spectrum frenetically fanning the flames of anti-immigrant sentiment in order to win votes and popularity contests, it is avowedly clear that a rabid and pernicious shift towards right-wing populism is happening in South Africa at a frightening pace.
The status quo in South Africa’s exclusionary political economy is lethally precarious — and in such a time of political and economic instability, such a crisis means anxiety and fear are at an all-time high; furnishing ample room for radical right-wing populism/nationalism to flourish through the rise of ultra-nationalism and authoritarian answers to social ills.
This radical far-right paranoia implies dangerous times; and it portends an ominous threat: the spectre of fascism. And of course this might come off as a distant reality. But it viciously haunts South Africa. And it haunts the continent at large.
South Africa’s xenophobic nationalism is worryingly surging, and this is an incontrovertible attestation to how right-wing populism in the country presents the danger of fascism if left unchecked. And this is exacerbated by the perennially unresolved racial question — it makes the scapegoating of African migrants frustratingly easy. With devastating effects that decimate innocent livelihoods.
Far-right populism is proliferating pervasively in becoming some sort of a default national consciousness for South Africans; characterized by faux anti-elitist, anti-establishment, and anti-corruption sentiments; as well as the palpably and egregiously animated perception that South Africa is "under foreign control". It is this last characteristic [xenophobia] that is more pronounced in South Africa's fraught post-Apartheid political economy — showing how xenophobia is deeply institutionalized in South African politics and how it provides a conveniently insidious pretext: that migrants from African (and Asian) countries are responsible for South Africa's economic and social ills.
Xenophobic nationalism, an embodiment of right-wing populism, treats migrants as the scapegoats for South Africa's widening inequality. The real causes of poverty are left to their own dereliction; where, without a vibrantly organized Left in South Africa and the continent, populist politicians in the African National Congress (ANC), Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), ActionSA, Democratic Alliance (DA) among others will capitalize these failings for their selfish political, economic, and social capital.
It is clear that globalized neoliberalism has failed people the world over — rising poverty, inequality, and stunted growth — and the Left must be bold and candid in providing specific, people-centred solutions to "market-led globalization".
What populism provides is fertile ground for disingenuous juxtapositions to flourish. And this is a huge problem. South African politicians — in an exclusionary economy marked with continuities (and discontinuities) of racist settler capitalism — are employing a political language that vainly cares for "the people", given the staggering ineptitude of the country's [corrupt] political and business ruling elites, while at the same time avoiding to holistically address the inherent causes of South Africa's problems.
The potential for genuine social change in this young democracy thus succumbs to a crushing and soul-draining stillbirth.
South Africa's morbid symptoms are biting: rising unemployment, rising inequality, declining wages, rising cost of living, scant public spending; all this means a precarious existence for the majority of the urban poor in South Africa.
The threat of political instability is never a remote possibility under such a context. It is in dangerous, uncertain, and unstable times like these that right-populism flourishes unabated, with the flames of xenophobia flaring up frighteningly. The masses feel helpless from all the angst they undergo (where, in a rich country like South Africa, capitalism has ensured wealth remains in the hands of an elite few who are privy to financialized global private capital).
Against this backdrop, xenophobic sentiments assume a great but insidious seductive appeal to many. But this is dangerous and should be flatly opposed.
Political parties in South Africa rarely champion organic, emancipatory, and progressive messages of social change. Last year's local government elections bring out this concern to the fore. As noted in the Daily Maverick, "Empty rhetoric, demagogic posturing and platitudes about ending corruption, getting tough on immigration and creating jobs have replaced anything approaching a coherent agenda for the future."
The glaring aspect of this is that far-right populism is garnering mass appeal among South Africans, both in poor townships and affluent suburbs. Xenophobic nationalism thus manifests itself as the embodiment of reactionary populist politics (for instance, migrants are taking jobs to the detriment of South Africans, therefore put South Africans, "the people", first). In this, no regard is paid to the cleavage between racism and global neoliberal capitalism — post-Apartheid South Africa, despite its 'Rainbow' nation assertion, is nightmarish for the black majority.
South Africa's social crisis is a collective concern. What is worrying is that for all the problems South Africa faces, as a result of free-market globalization and corrupt, inept leaders, no blame is apportioned to the political and financial bourgeois who are strangulating the economy and killing the livelihoods of millions of people — both South Africans and migrants. Rather, all blame is wrongly shifted to migrants. It does not even make any sense to say that migrants are the ones killing South Africa's economy. It betrays dangerous reactionary right-wing populist politics.
And this is as abetted by right-wing leaders such as Herman Mashaba with his new political outfit ActionSA. To him, and all others, migrants represent a "parasitic underclass" that drains SA's national fiscus at the expense of South Africans, as purportedly exacerbated by "oligarchical elites" who corruptly and unethically capitalize their proximity to state capital in oppressing the "ordinary people". This populist strand — adopted by SA's reactionary Right elements — represents a set of political manouevres aimed at creating some sort of cleavage between the poor and rich. However, the "poor" excludes migrants: migrants here are portrayed as enemies of the "poor".
The contentious issue of the termination of Zimbabwean Exemption Permits brings xenophobic nationalism, driven by far-right nationalism, brings this issue clearly. The intention to leave Zimbabwean migrants in South Africa with narrow options regarding their residence south of the border (potentially leaving many as illegal migrants) is a callous symptom of this far-right populism.
Recently, Limpopo provincial health minister, Phophi Ramathuba, sparked controversy when she vented her frustrations to a Zimbabwean woman who was scheduled for a surgery at a hospital in Bela Bela — saying that it was not the responsibility of South Africa [faced with its own public health difficulties] to treat Zimbabweans; that Zimbabwe [read Emmerson Mnangagwa] must save her health. What cannot be doubted is that in South Africa, crippled by its warped sense of exceptionalism, there is an overwhelmingly ubiquitous anti-immigrant sentiment that cuts across class, and perhaps race. It is pervasive across all levels of societal strata. And it is regrettably tragic.
In such a profusion of right-wing ultra-nationalism, shared by the upper, middle, and subaltern classes, one may hazard to warn against nascent bits of fascist elements. The myth of an all-great South Africa has misled many political leaders and players; and this has some similarities with the invocations of the greatest fascist villains of all time: Hitler and Mussolini.
Some may regard such a position as mere abstraction. But populism (promoting absurdly polarized views, demonization of opponents and migrants, antagonism toward intellectuals, and notions of "the people" and "the elite") may gesture towards fascism too: the adoption of state and extra-judicial violence to impose the said far-right populist beliefs.
Social democracy is faced with a grim future, but there is always optimism where organic, participatory, emancipatory, and counter-hegemonic democratic discourses prevail — and while others may look to the Left for such an elusive material reality, such a mission requires the will power of all.