South African election turns populist as parties play anti-foreigner card


South Africa’s election campaign has taken a populist turn, with candidates pitching the death penalty and foreigner expulsions to an electorate weary of crime, unemployment and a sense of national malaise.

A clutch of opposition parties, often championing identity politics or anti-immigrant sentiment, have emerged ahead of the May 29 vote, the first since 1994 in which the absolute majority of the African National Congress is under threat.

Jacob Zuma, the former president, this week released a TikTok video that claimed there was “no crime” in South Africa “before foreign nationals came”. He had previously proposed that teenage mothers be sent to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent years in prison, to complete their studies.

In December, Zuma launched a new party, uMkhonto weSizwe (MK), named after the disbanded armed wing of the ANC. The party, which has taken up the banner of radical economic transformation, is widely regarded as courting chauvinist sentiment among Zulu people, the country’s biggest ethnic group.

Separately, the Patriotic Alliance — which frequently uses the anti-immigration slogan abahambe, meaning “they must go” in Zulu — has appealed primarily to communities that identify as “coloured”, while the Freedom Front Plus, a rightwing Afrikaner party, has supported CapeXit, the independence of Western Cape from the rest of South Africa.

“The rise of xenophobic, patriarchal types of politics arises out of the manipulation of black political disappointment,” said Joel Modiri, associate professor at the University of Pretoria.

Africa’s most industrialised nation today hosts more migrants than any other country on the continent. Xenophobia has been a persistent issue in townships where foreign nationals from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of Congo and elsewhere have been scapegoated for chronic unemployment, now at 32 per cent.

Outside the heavily barred shopfront of a Somali-run kiosk in Soweto, known as a spaza shop, Siphiwe Tyali, a local resident, said foreign-owned businesses were often attacked. “We go to the spazas and loot them instead of fighting the government, which is not nice,” he said. “People are only trying to make a living.”

Busisiwe Seabe, a writer and activist, said political parties were whipping up resentment. “There is a very big issue around populism in South Africa at the moment,” she said, adding that there had been a partial fracturing of the political system along identity lines.

“The Zulus will be fighting the Xhosa tribe and the Vendas and the Sothos and so forth,” she said. “It’s becoming even more overt with the rise of Jacob Zuma’s MK party.”

South Africa’s electoral commission on Thursday barred Zuma from standing for parliament on the grounds of his criminal conviction in 2021 for contempt of court.

Calls for the death penalty had originated at grassroots level as a reaction against rampant crime, Seabe said. “The new parties are riding on the death penalty issue because they think by advocating for it you get more votes.”

Speaking on a panel in Cape Town last month, the brash, straight-talking leader of the Patriotic Alliance, Gayton McKenzie, said: “I will halve youth unemployment by mass deporting all these illegal foreigners so that . . . our youth should get a job.”

He invoked apartheid South Africa’s hated dompas laws, saying that foreigners should carry identity papers at all times, as was once required of Black South Africans.

The ActionSA party of Herman Mashaba, who was known for a hardline stance on immigration during his time as Johannesburg mayor, also issued a manifesto last week that would make it easier to move illegal immigrants.

But its platform notably avoided populist rhetoric, explicitly condemned xenophobia and called for simplifying official ways to enter the country, particularly for skilled workers.

“We want the people of the world to come to South Africa, but they must do so by following our laws,” the manifesto says.

Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, a legal scholar, said the core of the ANC still stood for progressive values, even though some of its elements had flirted with more radical rhetoric.

“When people say we are witnessing the last days of the ANC, who is going to champion these pillars of non-tribalism, non-racialism, pan-Africanism and internationalism?” he asked. “What kind of society do we have in mind if we don’t have anyone to defend these values?”





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