Populist ideals are fuelled by righteous indignation, which generates the fervour necessary to get things moving; but it does not deal with failure or unintended consequences and usually fails to resolve issues.
Populists occupied Wall Street and criticised executive remuneration, justifiably so, given the massive bonuses the bankers earn and the damage they caused to the world economy. Nevertheless, protesting endows them neither with insights nor the required expertise to run the financial institutions they criticised.
Like the ANC Youth League’s call to redress the wrongs of the 1913 Land Act by confiscating commercial farms, thereby losing the experienced farmers who ensure food security, they “throw the baby out with the bath water”.
Populist culture is generally only comfortable with neat and tidy models of right and wrong; favouring what seems plausible, obvious or morally superior over what is valid, likely to encourage responsibility or create value. Populist notions provide false certainty and comfort for those who dislike debate or dealing with ambivalence, vulnerabilities and complex trade-offs. Populists cannot bear to be wrong; they refuse to negotiate and instead resort to bullying or sentimental manipulation to either ignore or rationalise away unexpected information or unwanted views.
The anti-toll road lobby claim, with justification, that had the government spent more wisely there may have been enough money in the fiscus to pay for the new freeways. However, the over-wrought populist reaction to e-tolling obscures the reality that a first-rate freeway system or any other sophisticated infrastructure will incur debt that must be repaid.
The new or refurbished roads are an investment in the future, yielding safer motoring that results in lower insurance premiums, faster transport of goods by road and concomitant lower prices, and less wear and tear on vehicles. None of these benefits featured in the outcry against the tolls.
Greece entered the euro zone with populist attitudes. With the help of investment banks (who no doubt are now earning massive fees for cleaning up the mess they helped create in the first place), they were able to hide the true levels of sovereign debt in order to meet the entry criteria and the rest is history, as they say.
The architects of the EU ignored the fact that Greeks did not pay tax and seemed oblivious to the misrepresentation of the Greek economy when they entered the union. Likewise, the bailout architects have ignored how their austerity measures have destroyed hope in the Greek economy; even though hope is essential to responsibility, which is at the core of a healthy economy.
The latest elections in Greece demonstrated the inconvenient truths of needing to repay one’s debts through a measure of austerity. Likewise, the threat of a Greek default in response to the equally doctrinaire austerity programme, woke the European powers up to the fact that some degree of hope and sense of possibility is necessary if Greece is to recover; and therefore, complex trade-offs are needed to develop a suitable response.
Nobody can predict how the toll roads or Gautrain will improve our economy, nor should they. But we need to invest in making it work, learn as we go, reinforce what is working and change what isn’t. This would show the responsibility to face reality and trust in our ability to work with what we’ve got.
Jonathan Yudelowitz is joint managing director of YSA Limited and the author of Smart Leadership.