MMUSI MAIMANE is leader of the DA

We’re between two important international elections. Brazil has just held its general election, and voters in the US are about to go to the polls in their midterm elections. And while the far side of the Atlantic may seem like a long way away, the outcomes are of profound importance to us and our own fragile democracy.

The election of Jair Bolsonaro as president of Brazil, and the presidency of Donald Trump — along with his party’s control over the US Congress, which he hopes to retain — should set alarm bells ringing in SA. They provide us with crucial lessons in what happens when society’s difficult questions are left to be answered by dangerous people.

To understand why populists with destructive agendas so often rise to the top, you have to realise that their rhetoric is always in response to very real and very serious issues. They pounce on valid questions that go unanswered — or are poorly answered — by their opponents, and fill the vacuum with their fear, hate and lies.

All successful lies have some basis in truth. In populist rhetoric, the truth is in the question and the lie in the answer.

No-one does this better than Trump. In the US and globally there is a real problem with media credibility and news manipulation. He didn’t make this up. But in the absence of debate, introspection and sensible answers, his answer is to demonise all media that doesn’t flatter him. And it has worked.

The people of Brazil are arguably even worse off under Bolsonaro — a man who sold himself as a corruption-busting, crime-fighting alternative to an establishment that couldn’t provide satisfactory answers to these issues. Now Brazil has as its president a man who openly jokes about killing his opponents, who belittles women, gay people and minorities, and who unashamedly defends torture.

The election of Trump and Bolsonaro should be a red flag to us as we prepare for our general election. We have our own complex and uncomfortable questions. And when the voices at the centre — those who believe in the values of liberal democracy — retreat, these questions will inevitably be answered by dangerous populists.

We have extreme inequality and massively skewed participation in the economy. We have unjust land ownership and a growing demand for urban living space near work opportunities. We have poor border security and high levels of illegal immigration. These are real issues for which we must find rational, sensible and practical solutions, even if this means having hard conversations.
If we don’t, the populists — whether we’re talking about the EFF or an ANC chasing the red overalls down that dead-end street — will dominate these conversations with destructive rhetoric that will find fertile soil in an increasingly frustrated and angry society.

We must debate ways in which we can turn our stagnant economy into a growing, inclusive economy that can provide jobs for our nearly 10-million unemployed South Africans. Because if we don’t, others will come with their answers. And we know by now that the populists will demonise certain races and pit us against each other, using divisive language like “white monopoly capital” in their effort to bring the economy even further under state control.

We must debate immigration and border security so that we can find solutions that make it easier for those who want to enter our country legally and harder for those who want to do so illegally. If we don’t, we leave it to others to provide terrible answers like xenophobic violence. We must debate land ownership and urban housing so that we can find workable solutions to put land title in the hands of ordinary South Africans. Solutions like empowering the courts to determine land compensation rather than leaving this entirely in the hands of the ministry. Because if we don’t, the racial rhetoric and land grabs of the populists will become the answer.

The DA cannot shy away from these conversations. It is our voice and our sanity that must prevail.

The alternative is Bolsonaro, Trump, intolerance, racism, xenophobia and even the threat of racial violence and genocide.

Bolsonaro’s election in Brazil means we find ourselves in decidedly undemocratic company at Brics, where we are also flanked by Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping. This leaves Narendra Modi of India as the only semi-moderate voice in this group of five emerging economies. If you consider yourself a democrat, this should be of huge concern.

As the defenders of democracy in SA, the DA has a duty to ensure that our values prevail. We must defend constitutionalism, because others won’t. We must defend the rule of law, because others won’t. We must fight for a nonracial SA, because others won’t.

Together we must have the debates and seek the solutions to all the tough issues that face our country today. Because if we don’t, we will leave the right questions to be answered by the wrong people.