Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe
Mugabe, known internationally for his bitterly anti-colonial stance, was one African leader who saw no shame in associating himself with ‘populist nationalist rhetoric’ (Woolf 2017). Examples of his populist interventions, argues Mhlanga (2017), included his resolution to publicly overrule his finance minister’s decision to hold off bonus payments to civil servants due to a crippling economic downturn. Never the one to shy away from controversy and always eager to please ‘his people’, Mugabe declared in a national address that all government workers would receive their 13th cheque, to the utter disbelief and embarrassment of his minister. Buoyed by his uncompromising stance on the land reform, Mugabe’s economic populism was notable. In taking land from the white farmers, he followed Amin by using the need to economically empower the native population as a way of justifying his policies. Yet, the white farmers’ decision to financially back Mugabe’s fiercest political opponent (Morgan Tsvangirai) was largely perceived to be the main motive of his retaliatory move (Mutsvairo and Muneri 2019). When the prices of foodstuffs sharply rose in 2007, Mugabe blamed the white business owners for using their businesses to effect a Western-backed regime change agenda. His response was to introduce price controls, which led to severe shortages. Some Western journalists, who Mugabe had long argued deliberately wrote false accounts to destroy his image, were also kicked out of the country.
Thus, in Mugabes populist agenda, there was always someone to blame. The key targets were journalists, opposition leaders and their supporters, businessmen, and Western leaders, all of whom, he argued, were keen to oust him because of his pro-black policies. African leaders — apart from Botswana’s Ian Khama, who Mugabe sharply rebuked at every given opportunity’ — did not interfere in Zimbabwe, arguing the Southern African country was a sovereign state that could deal with its own internal affairs. The non-interference of African leaders, just like with Amin in Uganda, gave Mugabe an unmatched conviction that he was indeed Africa’s true anti-colonial champion. He was also accused, like Amin was before, of ethnically targeting those opposed to his rule. But his supporters saw him as a liberation icon, someone who had empowered his people by giving them land previously owned by white people.
Mugabe used his intellect and charisma to administer his anti-Western populist agenda. Even those who opposed his politics sometimes could not help but admire him. One of those was Tendai Biti, a known figurehead of opposition politics in Zimbabwe, who reacted to news of Mugabe’s death by calling a man he said had tortured and jailed him the ‘founding father of our struggle’ (SABC 2019) while, contrastingly, a spokesman for the British government called Mugabe a ‘barrier to a better future’ (France24 2019). Tendai Biti had also praised Mugabe by suggesting he found ‘counsel and wisdom in him’ (Vava 2012).
Julius Malema in South Africa
Agenda-setting Malema, a vicious proponent of socialism, could represent Africa’s young and modern-day populists. According to Karimi (2012), he is a ‘populist, an opportunist, or both, depending on whom you ask’. Eloquent, confident, and tough-talking, the militant Malema rose to prominence in the African National Congress (ANC), South Africa’s ruling party’s youth wing. At first, nobody paid attention to his rise until he demanded, during ex-president Thambo Mbeki’s rule, that mines be nationalised and, in keeping with Mugabe’s acquisition of land for redistribution to black people, appealed for the confiscation of white farmland. In response, the media has sharply rebuked ‘toxic, destructive populism’ by Malema (Lincoln-Reader 2020). He does not try to hide radical, racially propelled, economic populism, which has been the face of his self-styled far-left Economic Freedom Fighters party. While he claims to have nothing against whites, he has issued racially charged statements on numerous occasions, recently declaring, ‘We are not calling for the slaughtering of White people — at least for now’ (York 2019).
His expulsion from the ANC came after he sang a song that openly called for the killing of a white farmer, but in 2013, he formed his own pan-Africanist party (Economic Freedom Fighters), which is now the third largest nationally in terms of parliamentary representation. Male-ma’s critics, who accuse him of deliberately inciting racism and anti-white prejudice against his opponents, have warned he lacks the credibility and political willpower to preside over an already racially divided nation, but his supporters, especially the young unemployed blacks, see him as the perfect answer to South Africa’s unequal society. This inequality seems to be at the centre of everything Malema and his party do, which is basically ‘fighting for equality not for blacks to oppress whites’ Cotterill (2019). Malema uses combative rhetoric to appeal to his supporters, especially the youths. He sees himself as the voice of the voiceless, particularly those who have failed to see the gains from the end of apartheid. He has also issued scathing attacks on global icon Nelson Mandela for what he considers to be his pro-white policies, suggesting for instance that Mandela made a mistake by not prioritising free education when he took over power in 1994. There are some who consider Malema an ‘unapologetic fascist’ or a ‘dangerous politician’. Yet there are others who see him as a symbol of economic egalitarianism in an already deeply divided country.