Eight months since the current plague emerged from Wuhan, China, we face disrupted lives, shattered livelihoods, a wrecked economy and more to come.

This unhappy picture, though, has one silver lining for those who believe in grown-up solutions and global responses to an international crisis such as the novel coronavirus – described as a “once-in-a-century crisis”.

This has not been a good time for the merchants of political quackery posing as populist leaders.

In the US, Donald Trump is behind, sometimes far behind, in every battleground state he needs to win to secure his re-election in November. His initial response to downplay the seriousness of Covid-19, peddle false claims on his administration’s success in interdicting it and preferencing fake cures ahead of science, is costing him politically. And while a great deal can happen between now and November 3 (election day), more than 65% of Americans disapprove of his handling of Covid-19, according to a poll by ABC News and Ipsos. Trying to change the subject to law and order in response to the recent protests rocking American cities in response to Black Lives Matter, is also apparently unavailing. The same poll, published on August 2, shows that even 55% of white Americans, his essential base, disapprove of his handling of the nationwide protests over the racial issue.

Of course, beyond musing on postponing the election, which even his staunchest defenders in Republican ranks shot down, Trump suggests that the polls are wrong or “fake”. His one correct assertion is that the polls were way out last time when, against prediction, he beat Hillary Clinton in 2016.

But that is the essence of his two problems: Clinton, fairly or not, was one of the most polarising and unpopular candidates yet nominated by the Democrats for president. She excited enmity and was the perfect foil for Trump’s “drain the establishment swamp in Washington” mantra.

This time, he is running against unthreatening, placid Joe Biden who might, on Trump’s version, barely have a pulse and not much mental acuity, but does not excite or threaten.

And in an election which is rapidly turning into a referendum on the incumbent president, his record and his handling, or mishandling, of the pandemic which as of Tuesday had resulted in 4.8 million US cases and 158,968 deaths.

Down in the southern cone of the hemisphere, in Brazil, the man who rejoices in his nickname “Trump of the Tropics”, President Jair Bolsonaro, who dismissed Covid-19 as “a little flu”, has presided over an even more chaotic and denialist response than on offer in the US. With one-third fewer people than the US, his country’s metrics are almost as bad: 2.75 million infections and 94,702 deaths. This ranks, morbidly, the US and Brazil as the top two Covid-19 death countries in the world.

While the SA government has made a right mess and corrupted its responses to the dread disease, it has not – at least – downplayed the significance and denied the proper treatment of the virus.

But for the populist party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, the disease has done it no favours at all.

Its seventh anniversary celebrations a few weeks ago barely registered.

Back in 2014, when the EFF first brought its street tactics of mayhem and chaos into the hallowed halls of the National Assembly in parliament – a  trick it would wearingly repeat for the next six years –  it got huge attention.

And while the mishmash of EFF policies, drawn from the ruins of Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela and Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, hardly added up to anything beyond a gaseous concoction  of economic populism, they completely lacked anything useful for a crisis such as the coronavirus.

But on the tactics of thuggery – disrupting parliament, labelling journalists as “bloody agents” and Ramaphosa as “a bastard”; and, on one occasion, trashing an upmarket clothing store in Sandton; brandishing firearms in public and invading private and public land across the country – there was something in the analogy of fascism. And it got the red berets a lot of attention.

Six years later and amidst a pandemic the EFF is starved of the oxygen of publicity as public attention turns to the real life-and-death issue of obtaining sufficient real oxygen. It is easy to dismiss the EFF as unpopular populists. After all, even after nine years of Zuma’s misrule laid waste to our economy, the populist red berets could barely top 10% in the last general election, and at local level is unable to win a single ward anywhere in the country beyond Rustenburg.

But this might be the easy and the wrong conclusion to draw.

For Malema, whites and Indians serve as his all-purpose punching bag, the handy alibi to explain black deprivation and racial inequality.

In his seventh anniversary remarks, Julius Malema offered this about the minority: “An arrogant race of people arrived in South Africa assumed themselves as superior.” In today’s country, its contemporary form is “the white capitalistic establishment with a mind like a rat”. And he spelt out again the essential challenge and target: “For as long as the land remains in the hands of the white minorities, we will never rest. We want the land to be returned in the hands of the rightful owners.”

The reason Malema’s lack of wide support is a false comfort is simply that a lot of his gaseous populism enjoys wide support in the upper reaches of the ANC. After all it is the mother party which incubated Juju and his lieutenants.

When, on May 31, Malema was beating the same racial tom toms and called for the “collapse of the white economy” (whatever that might be) he received strong support in public from Mzwandile Masina, the mayor of Ekurhuleni and regional boss of the ANC. He enthusiastically tweeted:

“I fully agree with my friend Julius Malema on this … we must nationalise all commanding heights of the economy – we need to restart the economy and make sure it favours the majority.”

I am sure these sentiments will go down a treat with the IMF, in whom we are in hock for more than $4bn as of last week. But it probably tickles the fancy and other zones of the ANC NEC and many of its members.

And if the current crisis of corruption cascading around this government forces them below the 50% line in the next election, no guesses for who their coalition dance partner will be. Hint: he will be wearing red. And sporting a Breitling watch.

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.

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