Democratic Distemper in Brazil and South Africa

by Gay W. Seidman, University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA and member of ISA Research Committee on Labour Movements (RC44)

Since Trump’s unexpected electoral victory, much ink has been spilt on the challenges of globalization and the threat of authoritarian populism, but most of that discussion has focused on the wealthy countries of the global North. But what about the new democracies of the global South?

For the past 25 years, Brazil and South Africa have served as proud symbols of a new era: after decades of authoritarian industrialization, two of the world’s most unequal societies moved steadily to build democratic constitutional societies, with popularly-elected leaders balancing inclusive social programs with consistent economic growth and global integration.

In both countries, popular movements in the 1990s united civil society, labor movements and poor communities, becoming global symbols of post-colonial possibility. In both, parties committed to progressive change came to power through democratic elections, seeking to balance economic growth and democratic citizenship.

As exporters of minerals and other primary commodities, both countries benefited from high commodity prices during the early 2000s. Popular parties seemed to have found a pragmatic balance, keeping international investors and local citizens happy, maintaining ties to the global economy while pursuing new “pro-poor” social policies for long-excluded communities.

But today, hammered by a slump in global commodity prices, both South Africa’s ANC and the Brazilian Workers’ Party (PT) are in turmoil, torn apart by accusations of corruption and rapidly losing popular support. In both countries, massive corruption scandals have ensnared leading party officials. Large private companies in both countries have bribed parties and politicians to win large construction projects, subsidies for private business, and lucrative public contracts, causing widespread popular anger.

Corruption is hardly new in either society, of course. In both countries, authoritarian industrialization was historically fueled by political deals within the elite: repressive governments were closely linked to major corporations, which depended on politicians’ favor and state contracts for much of their success.

But democracy has created new transparency: democratic institutions and media have revealed details that would never have been visible in the past. In both countries, independent investigative units created as part of new democratic structures, along with new protections for free speech, have revealed details of extraordinary levels of corruption. In democracies, politicians and state agencies can be challenged in open courts, allowing new insights into what would once have been business as usual.

In Brazil, the Workers’ Party gave independent prosecutors new powers, allowing state investigators to offer witnesses lighter sentences in return for evidence – a change that was central to prosecutors’ ability to unravel the vast Lava Jato scandal and subsequent scandals, using taped conversations to implicate politicians of every political persuasion. In South Africa, a new independent investigative unit, appointed by parliament for a single term, was created in the post-apartheid constitution. In late 2016, the “Public Protector,” a constitutionally-created ombudsperson, reported on a web of corrupt contracts between state entities and private companies in what was called the “state capture report.” Since then, massive leaks of emails between government and private companies gave South Africa’s independent news outlets more details, allowing them to flesh out the public’s understanding of how government contracts enrich private contractors.

Not surprisingly, such revelations have sparked popular outrage. In both countries, massive street demonstrations and protests have been widely supported by opposition parties – especially as the commodity slump has pushed both countries into recession. Importantly, pro-poor programs have been largely funded through value-added and income taxes, rather than taxes on wealth or property; as the recession has unfolded, the new urban middle classes have made their anger felt, on social media and in the street.

Disillusionment has left politics in turmoil, with once-popular politicians in disgrace, and no obvious alternatives. Brazil’s right-wing media barons have supported conservative politicians in what many observers call a “soft coup”: former PT President Dilma Rousseff was impeached not because of personal corruption, but because she had approved accounting maneuvers to continue social welfare spending during the downturn.

Brazil’s conservative politicians moved quickly to consolidate their power. Current President Michel Temer (a right-wing politician who served as Dilma’s vice-president until he led the campaign to remove her from power) has been linked through video-taped evidence to illicit bribes and suitcases full of cash, but Temer has proven adept at staying in power through the use of obscure legal mechanisms. Brazil’s senate is dominated by conservative politicians – many of whom also face corruption charges; the senate has supported Temer throughout, rejecting calls for early elections, reasserting old Brazilian traditions of elite impunity and power.

For poor Brazilians, the change in government means real changes in daily life and opportunities. Temer’s unelected cabinet has rolled back most of Brazil’s “pro-poor” policies, cutting pensions and social grants, imposing austerity on social services, repealing new labor laws and capping social spending into the future.

The scandals have left Brazil’s once-formidable Workers’ Party in disarray. Former President Lula da Silva, the party’s most popular figure, has been sentenced to ten years in jail on corruption charges (a conviction he is currently appealing); the party’s base – including Brazil’s once-vaunted labor movement – has been left disillusioned and disorganized.

South Africa’s political dynamics suggest surprising parallels to Brazil’s distemper. As the country’s commodity-based economy has fallen into recession, middle- and upper-class taxpayers have become increasingly furious over misspent government funds. The current ANC leadership is enmeshed in scandal, barely surviving a recent “no confidence” vote despite its parliamentary majority.

President Jacob Zuma’s personal corruption is well-documented: millions of government dollars have been spent on his personal estate, while ongoing court cases and massive email leaks have revealed huge government contracts illegally awarded to Zuma’s family and cronies – including, most notably, the Guptas, a clan of recent immigrants whose name is now synonymous with flagrant siphoning of government funds.

Importantly, politicians are not the only bad actors – in either country. Just as many of Brazil’s oil companies, construction companies and agribusiness giants were caught paying huge bribes to individuals and parties, usually in exchange for lucrative government contracts, many white-owned South African businesses (as well as smaller black-owned start-ups – along with German, Chinese and British multinationals) have been found manipulating tendering processes, and paying off individuals.

Recent leaks have also drawn public attention to professionals working for global accountancy and law firms: licensed accountants and lawyers have certified crooked deals as acceptable, sometimes cleaning up bids to make them seem legitimate. Even public relations firms have been complicit: acting on behalf of the Gupta consortium, the giant British public relations firm Bell Pottinger coordinated a vicious social media campaign which (ironically enough) sought to brand Zuma’s critics as agents of “white monopoly capital.”

Of course, context and history matter. While Brazil’s right-wing politicians have managed to roll back reforms instituted by a democratically-elected government, South Africa’s black majority would never allow a return to apartheid’s white supremacy. As in Brazil, democratically-elected governments brought real improvements in the daily lives of poor households, from access to electricity and running water, to cash grants and pensions.

Yet if Brazil’s PT seems to have lost many of its middle-class supporters, black South Africans remain largely sympathetic to the ANC’s efforts to expand welfare programs. Both countries have long histories of racial exclusion, but South Africa’s explicit policies entrenching white supremacy still rankle; political loyalties still reflect the long struggle against apartheid. Moreover, many middle-class black South Africans, still largely excluded from top positions in South Africa’s white-dominated private sector, obtained government jobs as teachers, nurses, policemen, bureaucrats or politicians, since the ANC took power, cementing that sense of loyalty.

Nevertheless, loyalty to the ANC may be weakening, especially in urban areas, where young voters express widespread frustration over high unemployment rates, inadequate social services, and persistent racialized inequalities in wealth and opportunity. A charismatic (and corrupt) former ANC youth leader has attracted many young voters to his new political party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), by offering only vague promises of change. If Zuma stays in place, the ANC could lose its parliamentary majority in the next election, and the authoritarian-populist EFF might well gain power.

What comes next? In both countries, the threat of an anti-democratic turn seems all too real – a threat clearly exacerbated by Trump’s election. Since the early 1990s, citizens in both Brazil and South Africa could have counted on powerful allies, especially the United States, to support and protect still-fragile democracies. But under Trump, the silence coming from the White House exacerbates a global sense of foreboding: could democratic gains be rolled back? Even without a military takeover, Brazil’s current government seems to be stripping away the social citizenship rights instituted by an elected government; South Africa is unlikely to see the return of white supremacy, but the threat of authoritarian populism seems very real.

Direct all correspondence to Gay Seidman <gseidman@wisc.edu>

United States, Volume 7, Issue 4

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