Donald Trump’s Orange Revolution caught everyone off guard - and Julius Malema’s Red Revolution could do the same, writes Eusebius McKaiser.
There are, of course, competing interpretations on why Donald Trump was elected as the next American president.
Some argue that most of his supporters were driven by sheer racism, xenophobia, misogyny and small mindedness. That’s why his rhetoric, tapping into these forms of bigotry, resonated with millions of like-minded voters.
Others argue that an imprudent, self-indulgent form of identity politics held the liberal elite in the Democratic Party hostage to such a choking extent that no other voices could be heard and paid any attention to. These silent voices of discontent became visible on election day, voting Trump as a kind of middle finger to liberal elitism.
Still others suggest that Trump’s win was not so much an anti-Democrats turn of electoral events as much as it was an expression of anti-Establishment sentiment. On this analysis, millions of voters felt sidelined by the predictable, exclusionary politics of both the major parties.
In a sense, following this hypothesis, Trump’s win was a kind of defeat for the Republican Party and the Democratic Party.
And there are some, still, who argue that the major driver behind Trump’s victory was a legitimate feeling of economic exclusion from opportunities, such exclusion being felt acutely by working-class white folks who were the keenest to express their sense of marginalisation on the day of voting.
Reality, of course, is invariably irreducibly complex, and so probably some combination of these, and other factors, in fact explain Trump.
I’ve been wondering what, if anything, these fascinating complexities on the other side of the world might mean for us in South Africa.
The most interesting two analytic points, for me, are the ones that focus on inequity and anti-Establishment sentiment.
Unequal societies are unjust societies. The governments in unjust societies can no longer have a firm grip over the lives, minds and hearts of those on the wrong side of the inequality divide.
Not in an era of digital connectivity, easy community-building and quick organising.
America is a fascinating case in point. Many of us at the tip of Africa might casually assume that even the worst off in the US must be flourishing, surely? It’s a wealthy country.
That’s not entirely true. For one thing, many millions of Americans are feeling the effect of a sluggish domestic and global economy.
For another, inequality isn’t the same thing as poverty. The gap between the worst off and the wealthiest in society can breed deep political discontent even if the percentage of people in that society who live in absolute poverty is relatively low or even negligible.
And clearly both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party have been paying inadequate attention to this structural truth.
That’s in part why Trump, as an anti-Establishment figure, could gain some traction by diagnosing the misery of many as being due to the callous disregard of ordinary families on the part of political elites.
Which means there is, in fact, a visceral similarity with the structure of South African society. Inequality is an even bigger moral stain on our society than is the case in the US.
We have for many years ignored inequality, perhaps because it is genuinely hard to solve, politically and in terms of policy prescriptions.
The most colourful thing that can be said about the trajectory of inequality in South Africa is that it cuts across the usual racial fault lines in our society. The fastest-growing gap is between a black elite and millions of blacks left behind.
In any event, we can hardly get the economy growing beyond 1 percent, let alone reduce deep levels of inequality.
That means we’re ripe for anti-Establishment politics that skewer the political elite who loot from the state and throw crumbs at the marginalised millions.
We have a political elite that’s also in cahoots with big business, an elite which assumes that romantic nostalgia about liberation narratives can stave off the electoral death of the main party.
Obviously I’m referring to the arrogance of the ANC and its imprudent disregard for the fate of millions.
But I’m also referring to the DA. If the ANC mirrors the Democratic Party’s failure to deal with inequality and economic injustice in the US, then the DA mirrors the mistaken assumption of the Republican Party that you can ignore awkward moral questions about inequality by merely focusing on economic growth and reducing the cost of doing business.
It doesn’t take a genius to see where these oversights will be headed. Not least because our anti-Establishment politician has already emerged.
His name? Julius Malema. He’s our own Donald Trump. And just as Trump’s Orange Revolution caught everyone off guard, so Malema’s Red Revolution may yet deliver an electoral surprise that upsets both the DA and the ANC.
Unless between now and 2019 the ANC responds appropriately to its existential crisis, and the DA realises that economic growth is necessary but certainly not sufficient for economic justice.
Time is running out for both of our major parties to halt the electoral advances of our own Trump.
* Eusebius McKaiser is the best-selling author of A Bantu In My Bathroom and Could I Vote DA? A Voter’s Dilemma. His new book - Run, Racist, Run: Journeys Into The Heart Of Racism - is now available nationwide, and online through Amazon.
* The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Media.