Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Questions RE: "Populist Rage"

Peter L. Kjeseth is Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Wartburg Seminary, now living and teaching in South Africa. For three decades, he and his wife Solveig have fought for independence and justice alongside the Namibian people. Peter contributes this post on the upcoming South African elections, scheduled for April 22:

All elections are decisive, but some elections are more decisive than others. Few from either side of the political spectrum would question that the election of Barack Obama as 44th President of the United States was a landmark event and may perhaps usher in a radically new chapter in US – and world – history. We will see.

Many of the most thoughtful observers here in South Africa argue that the national election called for April 22 will be decisive for the ‘new South Africa’ and will play powerfully one way or another into Africa’s destiny and its place in the world’s scene.

This will be the fourth election in post-apartheid South Africa. Nelson Mandela, icon of the liberation struggle, won the presidency in the first free election. The next two elections gave the presidency to Thabo Mbeki, a lesser figure, but with impeccable family and struggle credentials in the African National Congress, a hard working, urbane man who looked – and spoke – like a national president and who guided the ship of state with an authoritarian hand. His AIDS denialism and his stubborn support of his Secretary of Health who shared his bizarre views cost him in the eyes of the world community as did his ‘quiet diplomacy’ in Zimbabwe which looked like spineless appeasement of the discredited struggle leader, Robert Mugabe. But it was generally agreed that South Africa’s economy under Mbeki had achieved remarkable health and stability and that the nation, far from becoming the radical socialist state envisioned in the Freedom Charter, had joined the convoy of the G8, if not in the forefront, at least as a respected tag-along into the sea of global capitalism where all boats were to be lifted but where a tsunami of collapse has now put even the big flagships in peril. It was his ‘success’ in playing the world economic game that proved Mbeki’s undoing here at home.

At the 52nd National Conference of the ANC held in Polokwane, 16 -20 December, 2007 Mbeki was effectively sidelined. A coalition of the left and populist anger at his attitude and fiscal policy undid him. Ultimately he was ‘recalled’ from the presidency by the ANC and replaced, again by the ANC without a new election, by Kgalema Motlanthe, a generally effective executive who serves as a kind of interim president. As a US citizen, used to endless presidential campaigns, I found it passing strange that a party could change the top position in government without consulting the general public. Even more puzzling, yes astounding, for me was the line up of forces and personalities that combined in Polokwane to bring about Mbeki’s political demise.

The victor in Polokwane was Jacob Zuma, a man of massive contradictions. Mbeki had sacked him as deputy president in 2005 when Zuma was found to have had an ‘essentially corrupt’ relationship with Shabir Shaik, his long-time business partner who has served a prison sentence. At the time of Shaik’s sentencing Zuma was not charged but since then the National Prosecuting Authority has been trying to bring him to trial. The media since then has reveled in the drama of Zuma claiming that he wants a chance to clear his name at the same time that he and his forces have moved legal mountains to prevent any trial from taking place.

Then we have the highly publicized trial that did take place. An HIV positive young woman half his age charged Zuma with rape. He admitted having unprotected sex with the woman but claimed it was consensual. Besides, he took a precautionary shower after the encounter. He was acquitted. Outside the court during the trial, large and noisy crowds gathered to ‘show support’ for Zuma and to vilify the accuser. She received so many threats that she is said now to be in hiding overseas.

How could this man become the public face of Mandela’s ANC and the all but certain presidential candidate in the April 22 election?

Throughout the Mbeki years the forces of the left, COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions) and SACP (South African Communist Party) had felt increasingly sidelined though they were officially part of the governing coalition. Repeated public put downs by Mbeki were insulting, but the steadily increasing disparity between the rich and the poor, the threat of increased unemployment, plus general disenchantment with government’s delivery in health care, safety, and education brought anger and bold action. Populist rage fueled the Polokwane rebellion.

How wisely did this rage choose? It seems that Zuma has been able to sell himself as champion of the people, the one who could work to realize the socialist vision of the Freedom Charter. Yet in his campaigning he appears to want to be all things to all people, reassuring the nervous business community that there would be no radical economic change under his leadership. Or is the post-Polokwane ANC merely the fragile assembly of those who rejected Mbeki? It is likely that only the election will tell.

I am fascinated – and puzzled – by the phenomenon of ‘populist rage’ and the attempts of our analysts to deal with it. Twice in the last several weeks Frank Rich, the mercilessly analytic leader of the NYTimes Sunday columnists, has touched on populist rage. On Sunday Feb. 8, he named a “tsunami of populist rage coursing through America” as the cause of Tom Daschle’s flameout as candidate for Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Obama cabinet. The Obama team was caught off guard and had no recourse but to let the highly qualified Daschle go. He was seen, said Rich, as belonging to the “greedy bipartisan culture of entitlement and crony capitalism”. Then on March 1 Rich warned that Obama might be blindsided again if he does not find an explainable way of saving banks and other “corporate recipients of tax payers’ money”. Populist rage against corporate criminals is so great that it might undercut Obama’s total recovery package.

True or not, Rich’s warning about ‘populist rage’ rampant in the US also fits South Africa. It is as dangerous and unpredictable as it is powerful. Part of Zuma’s disturbing popularity roots in populist rage against the rich-get-richer-poor-get-poorer record of the Mbeki years, though there is an aces-wild cultural contributing factor that I do not understand. Populist rage, of different types and lineages, figures in the left swing in Latin America characterized by the careers of Chavez in Venezuela and Morales in Bolivia. It also could be named as the ground from which terrorisms of various stripes arise around the world. Yet it seems that it could be –and often is – the engine of healthy change.

Some people argue that populist rage, or at least strong discontent, stands behind the healthy growth of opposition in South Africa. Others feel that it will lead us into dangerous times.

How much will the results of the April 22 election teach us? How much will it help us answer our uneasy questions about ‘populist rage’?

Peter L. Kjeseth
March 2009
Fishhoek, South Africa


Anonymous said...

I've been reading a book about the common good of education, and oddly enough, this idea of populist rage and using education for the common good fit together. They both force the question - What is the common good? How do we achieve it?

Jesus frequently socialized with the "populus." Those sinners, outcasts, tax collectors, and middle of the day well go-ers, are the people whom the elite used for gain. We, as Christians, continue to affirm the inherent worth of all people, and welcome all to our table in communion with Christ. This practice excludes a paternalistic system of the uneducated and irresponsible vs the educated and controlling. To say it another way, the practice of following Jesus by loving those who Christ loves, doesn't allow for the situation that calls for the irrational populist rage. When we honor the worth and gifts of all, and make room for their development, we avoid the pitfalls of reactionary anger.
(I am not here saying that the people contributing to the populist rage in Africa are in any way unintelligent or lacking in academic degrees - but instead using the "typical situation" of withholding power through withholding information, and thereby forcing people out of responsibility and into uninformed decisions.)

Yet, it is easier to educate a few and allow (force?) the majority to forgo responsibility. In time though, those who are not responsible will rise up together to affirm their value - not only are they people, it is their being which makes the others' lives possible. It is easier to be reactive and angry than it is to work together for change.

The well quoted phrase, be angry, but do not sin, is apt here. Rage brakes community where it does not need to be broken. It leads to sin. Anger draws us together against the brokenness of the world, and uses discontentment for change.

How much will the results of the April 22 election teach us, or help us answer our question of populist rage? Well, the answer depends on whether the South Africans, and all those who stand with them around the world, can be angry together for the good.

Anonymous said...

It's not uncommon for (sometimes unusual) groups to find themselves with a common 'enemy.' While populist rage might be quite effective in moving a group to action, it can be short-sighted and unhealthy if it is only unidimensional.

The challenge is for a group to move together 'toward' a common goal, not just 'away from' a common enemy. If a group is only cohesive regarding what it is against, than as soon as that aspect of its mission has been achieved, there is no direction other than to turn in on itself and produce less-than-desirable outcomes.

I am currently in a common situation with a congregation. Knowing what they were against, they broke from another congregation. Since their 'independence' has been relatively established, there has been in-fighting and scape-goating. The goal was always to get away. Now, they don't know what direction to take because they have nothing to move from.

This sounds similar to Peter's description of South Africa right now. Those who were adamant about getting rid of Mbeki were quite successful. But now that they've achieved their purpose, they are making unhealthy and unwise decisions because there was perhaps little to no conversation about what they were 'for.'

As far as my little congregation goes, we're now working on naming and claiming that attitude so that we can move past it and identify a common mission and vision regarding how to be the church again.

Tobi White