IV. Media and populism

Populism in Africa: personalistic leaders and the illusion of representation

Bruce Mutsvairo and Susana Salgado


From anti-colonial figureheads like the late Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe to the emerging crop of politicians such as South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighters party’s firebrand leader Julius Malema, known for his radically left-leaning yet unequivocal stance on black consciousness, Africa has had its share of populist politicians, and several of the features of what is considered populism in European and American countries have also been present in African politics over the last decades. In addition to strong personalistic leaders (Resnick 2017), there have also been political strategies aimed at strengthening a direct connection between the political leader and citizens, nationalism and nativism, as well as anti-immigration positions (e.g. Angola), or the ‘us and them’ divide of society (e.g. against ethnic and sexual minorities in Uganda). Such populist rhetoric is often mixed with illiberal and sometimes even despotic approaches to political power. The rise of populism in Africa, both historically and contemporarily, has been significantly aided by the presence of media outlets that take an uncompromising stance, especially when it comes to supporting their leader. In Southern Africa, the majority of political establishments that brought independence have lingered in power and are known for their uncompromising anti-colonialism stance. Their position is frequently supported by state media outlets that consider opposition parties as an extension of neo-colonialism or as the enemy of the people: for example, newspapers such as the state-owned Herald in Zimbabwe that steadfastly support the ruling ZANU PF party using both propaganda and innuendos to convince supporters and discredit foes.

The purpose of this chapter is to give an account of populism in Africa analysing extant literature and looking at four specific cases (Amin in Uganda, Machel in Mozambique, Mugabe in Zimbabwe, and Malema in South Africa), who were selected considering their varying features of populism and distinct generational differences. Our overall goal is to critically analyse and contribute to the understanding of the political and media populism that have persisted on the continent since the days of colonialism.

Some singularities of populism in Africa

They come in different shapes and sizes, but what binds them together seems to be their desire to represent the ‘will of the people’ (Mudde and Kaltwasser 2017, 90). Indeed, populism involves putting the ‘people’ (e.g. the common citizen, the worker, the poor) at the centre of speeches and decisions. Basically, it holds that state institutions should be first and foremost responsive to the needs and concerns of the people. The ideal of morality is often central in populist claims. In the form of liberation movements’ leaders, and over time, several African political leaders have become known for their populist charisma or for having resorted to populist ideas and strategies to mobilise supporters. As Resnick (2017) posits, ‘Africa represents an especially challenging case for delineating populism due to the predominance of personalistic leaders and the lack of policy ideology' underlying many political parties’. In defining populism within a South African context, Vincent (2011) posits,

what makes a politics ‘populist’ is not a particular, definable set of values or a particular social, political or economic programme but rather an antagonism to existing orthodoxies, to elite values and to the existing hierarchies governing the way in which power is organised and distributed.

(2011, 4)

An African populist has to appeal ‘directly to the masses for legitimacy’ (Carbone 2005, 1), present an image of ‘one of the people’ ready to use their common sense and lived experience to defend the ‘common man’ against manipulative elites (Cheeseman and Larmer 2015, 5), or make an attempt to ‘remake a connection between parties and voters whose livelihoods and communities are precarious’ (Fraser 2017, 461). According to Vincent, the central theme that connects African populists with each other is ‘the appeal to “the people” as the legitimizing authority for a particular set of ideas’ (2011, 3).

While in many parts of the world, radical politicians lead from the front against established political elites, in Africa, history has been at the centre of emerging and evolving populist discourses. Across the continent, populists are often united by their unwavering anti-colonial rhetoric. Theirs is a message of hope, and they take no shame in delivering such a message, even if it catches them in blunt contradictions, including instances in which they would have privately benefited from the same system they staunchly oppose publicly. They delegitimise all opposition: basically any political leader other than themselves.

Yet populist political leaders in Africa are not usually short of admirers. They could be bound by their ‘shared experience of violent struggle’ (Levitsky and Way 2010, 3), or they could simply enjoy riding on their charm, dominance, and charisma (Tormey 2018). Populism in Africa, needless to say, ‘legitimizes’ former freedom fighters’ quest to offer a message of hope in the light of perceived Western domination (Melber 2018, 679). Such a message instantly appeals to the multitudes, most of whom have come across some similar versions of colonial history at primary or secondary school. Facts are framed to fit a particular narrative, one in which the ‘subaltern’ is often portrayed as a victim of long-lasting colonial servitude (Spivak 1988, 271).

Extant research has conceptualised populism differently: it can be ideological, stressing the direct connection with the will of the people; a communication frame which purports to speak in the name of the people; a discursive or performative style, in which a populist adopts of political style that appeals to the people; or a form of political mobilisation (e.g. Gidron and Bonikowski 2013; Nai and Comma 2019). Equally, African populists adopt various tactics, including the use of simplified rhetoric, to present themselves as genuine representatives of the people and to establish a direct connection between them and the people. Key to their success is their claim to give voice (and thus power) to the people (Adeakin and Zirker 2017). But, as in other contexts, the word ‘people’ itself is problematic. It is difficult to tell how they measure which people whose interests they purport to represent. For example, it is not credible that the entire population of Uganda summarily supported Amin’s decision to expel Asians from the East African country, yet he nevertheless claimed his decision was being made in the interest of his ‘country folk’. Even when populist leaders claim to speak on behalf of the majority, it is unclear which yardstick is used to determine their claim of democratic superiority.

Although populism has often been associated with the erosion of freedom of expression and press freedom in other parts of the world, the media environment in African countries makes it difficult to evaluate the actual impact of populism on media freedom. The political instrumentalisation of mainstream media by ruling elites is a common characteristic of several governments in Africa, even in countries where democratic consolidation has found little obstacles to flourishing, such as Cape Verde (e.g. Salgado 2014). Most media outlets, particularly state-controlled news media with nationwide dissemination, are frequently used as tools to support the governments’ decisions and influence the citizens’ views. In the 1990s, changes in national laws allowed for the proliferation of privately owned media in many countries, but with few exceptions, these did not become fully independent from political and economic powers and often struggled to survive. More recently, the internet and social media have strengthened the forms of populism more dependent on the unmediated links between the political leader and the people.

Research focused on other parts of the world has already provided evidence of the key role that the media plays in supporting and mobilising for populist causes (e.g. Mazzoleni 2014; Mudde 2004). Even when media outlets do not openly support populist politicians, when politics is covered through oversimplified, negative, and sensationalist news reports, it tends to favour populist politicians by shaping favourable climates of opinion for populist leaders, thus improving their chances of getting elected. Media players can also help populist political leaders by generating user-friendly political news (Manucci 2017) or giving them the platform to prove their media savviness (Boczkowski and Papacharissi 2018), which is a key factor in maintaining their popularity.

For many populist leaders, some of whom could have their integrity questioned by the neoliberal private media (e.g. Malema in South Africa), the advent of social media has facilitated direct access to the people without journalistic interference. This type of media offers an opportunity not only to frame issues, but also to set a narrative that influences the agenda and consequently gain a favourable public opinion (e.g. Gainons and Wagner 2014; Blumler and Gurevitch 2001).

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