Populism is an unstable and often erosive force in democracy. According to Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz, populists elected into positions of power through democratic means will proceed to “gradually undermine institutional constraints on their rule” and “erode civil society.”  A recent study undertaken by The Guardian and The YouGov-Cambridge Centre has shown that South Africa has the second-highest rate of support for populist views of the 23 countries studied in the project. 39% of South Africans strongly agreed with two indicator statements: “My country is divided between ordinary people and the corrupt elites who exploit them” and “The will of the people should be the highest principle in this country’s politics.” Although populism is more nuanced than a belief in the supremacy of the people’s will and a division between ordinary people and exploitative elites, this high support for populist-leaning statements suggests that South Africa is ripe for a populist movement.
Many onlookers have argued that the Economic Freedom Fighters party (EFF) is a rising populist force within the country, filling a populist niche to become the third largest political party in South Africa. However, this party and its leader, Julius Malema, do not actually fulfill the requirements of true populism under a strict definition such as Jan-Werner Müller’s.  It is important to carefully examine the definition of populism and the cases it applies to in order to ensure that the term retains some semblance of meaning, rather than serving as a catch-all term for dissimilar anti-establishment political movements.
The EFF has a radical platform of land redistribution, nationalization of strategic economic sectors, free education and healthcare, and corruption-free government. Their 2019 election manifesto also expresses an anti-elite sentiment, claiming that the “white minority” controls the means of economic survival, leaving the black and colored people affected by apartheid to continue to struggle economically. However, according to Müller, elite criticism is not sufficient to make a populist movement; they must also claim to be the only legitimate representatives of the people.  In the manifesto, it does claim to be “the only political movement that will bring about real economic change,” but this is not an equivalent claim in that it makes no attacks on the legitimacy of its opponents. Rather, the EFF attacks other major political parties on the basis of their policies and track records, accusing especially the African National Congress (ANC) of failing to address the issues of land reform and expropriation and drifting away from their foundational values. Malema has also attacked specific politicians on the basis of their age but once again has made no attacks on their legitimacy.
Similarly, Müller argues that populists must claim to stand for the true people, made up of a mere subsection of the population, while dismissing those who do not support the cause as external and illegitimate.  This also is not true of the EFF. Although much of the EFF’s rhetoric supports the redistribution of goods and power from the white elites, Malema does not discount all white South Africans as external to the people. Rather, he claims that the EFF’s policies are meant to fight for equality with white people, not for retaliatory oppression. He wants the white elites to give the disadvantaged black citizens a seat at the table, threatening to “destroy the table” if compromise is not reached, but nonetheless failing to disregard white South Africans as external to the true people.
Therefore, the populist niche opened by susceptibility to populist rhetoric has not been entirely filled by the EFF movement. There exists an open political space for a truly populist politician to grow a following, amass power, and ultimately ascend to a position of leadership through the support of South African voters. This political space could also be filled by the EFF after drifting in a more populist direction. The impending South African 2019 elections on May 8th will provide voters with an opportunity to express which messages are resonating most effectively with them, and give the EFF or other emerging movements the opportunity to evaluate their platforms. Regardless of whether it is the EFF or a new movement that harnesses the populist leanings of South Africans, a successful bid for power by any populist movements would be detrimental to the country’s democratic institutions. Kendall-Taylor, Andrea & Erica Frantz. “How Democracies Fall Apart: Why Populism is a Pathway to Autocracy.” Foreign Affairs. December 5, 2016.  Müller, Jan-Werner. What Is Populism? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.
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