For a keen political observer, here is an observation about the global political scene that you cannot easily repudiate. Populist demagogues with a tendency to poke holes at social conventions are no longer playing a marginal role in politics; they are gaining mainstream acceptance all over the world.
In post-independent Africa, populist rhetoric is often allied to reckless outlandish antics, whereby political mobilization is achieved through antidemocratic tribal arithmetic, a voracious appetite for self-aggrandizing and highly polarizing PR stunts, violence, tawdriness, hate speech, as well as buffoonery.
This represents a huge problem particularly in Africa’s comparative politics since one of the most overlooked aspects of Africa’s body politic is the ease in which it attracts populist demagogues. This, of course, could be rightly attributed to weak institutions and antidemocratic regimes that emerged right after independence.
But we could also argue that most African political comparatists and journalists tend to chiefly focus on a limited multi-dimensional taxonomy of African post-independent regimes that largely leaves no room for studying demagogic antics.
This generalization while partly valid means that most characterizations of post-independent African regimes tend to leave out various cognizable public spectacles and polarizing rhetoric that shape political discourse in Africa. More specifically, how populist demagoguery weakens the guard rails of already fragile democratic institutions.
Furthermore, to analyze populist demagogues is not easy, since demagogic lunacy does not abide by a set of rules or conventions. In fact, some demagogues emerge and thrive within legitimate democratic processes. Thus, the functioning logic of demagoguery cuts across a wide spectrum of political regimes such that it does not necessarily confine demagogic lunacy to authoritarianism. But rather, it can emerge in and flourish through popular and democratic regimes. This is why it is important to understand impulsive populist antics and rhetoric because this unapologetic style of doing politics can gravely undermine political discourse and rational deliberation.
By delving into the study of populist demagogues in post-independent African politics, you will make seemingly obvious observations about them since they come from a particular stock of rudderless political opportunists that likely includes a toxic brew of zealots, rabble-rousers, the sycophantic ‘yes men’, the political shills, as well as the usual partisan hacks, that dominate the chattering political class.
But then again there is one actor that is far more toxic who plays a huge role in the promotion of demagoguery – the political buffoon.
But what does political buffoonery entail?
In sum, it encompasses a series of calculated and uncalculated self-aggrandizing stunts and clownish antics that are imbued with populist rhetoric. These impulsive actions are sometimes underlined with juvenile foolishness in order to challenge social conventions and decorum, with the ultimate aim of enhancing one’s eccentric reputation in the eyes of the public. As such, the only deliberate strategy for a political buffoon is outright contempt for serious public discourse and the continuous disparagement of conventional morality and social decorum.
So consequential is political buffoonery in politics that I believe it needs to be seen as a separate analytical tool in political sociology, (or even a social type) since it’s a deliberate strategy that has been employed by politicians for ages since antiquity. Indeed, the Roman empire saw its fair share of buffoonish emperors like Caligula and Nero who resorted to clownish antics to enhance their eccentric reputation.
Put differently, the support they draw from their supporters is founded on spin and spectacle, that panders to an anti-elitist stance that can easily mislead most of their supporters to believe that their eccentricity and larger than life persona translates to radical solutions.
In all, political buffoonery cuts across all epochs such that you can delineate clear similarities between past political buffoons, with the modern ones, without necessarily sounding anachronic.
As such, a common feature of a political buffoon that transcends all epochs is their eccentric antics that are deliberately meant to mock and disparage social conventions and institutions to the extent that, their crass approach to political communication while disdainful to the art of statecraft, can be very effective in mobilizing a credulous public into believing that tawdriness, crude innuendos, braggadocio, and dark political humor, is better than civilized political discourse and reasoned deliberation.
Political Buffoonery in Action; How Kenya and South Africa are Slowly Becoming Hotspots for Political Buffoonery in Africa
For many observers, Idi Amin epitomized buffoonery of the highest order, since his abrasive antics and sadistic whims were also cloaked in gross rhetoric, jesting, slapstick humor, braggadocio, outlandishness, and even self-mockery. In fact, the more you learn about Idi Amin, the easier it becomes to mock and parody his buffoonish belligerence.
But as we will find out, such kind of crass buffoonery in the political sphere should not be quickly dismissed on account of its idiotic absurdity. This is because it is not only entertaining for some of the electorates, but it can also mobilize a disenfranchised electorate into a formidable political movement.
However, Idi Amin’s eccentricities while extreme, emerge as a useful comparative case study in political sociology, since political buffoonery can be expressed in milder spectrums to the extent that, some of the leaders that indulge in clownish antics may not necessarily be despotic or authoritarian. In fact, some political buffoons not only have popular grassroots support but also a legitimate democratic mandate to hold public office.
This is why it is easy to overlook the toxic role of a demagogic buffoon in African politics since in some instances, they are able to correctly diagnose contentious sociopolitical problems. In fact, judging them on this fact alone, they may appear to be the authentic champion of the common man, since they know the right revolutionary catchwords to use in mobilizing popular support. To achieve this, they use a “disenfranchisement crisis”, by seeking out those who feel marginalized by the political class through anti-establishment rhetoric that is devoid of any coherent ideology or policy.
Julius Malema and his EFF party perfectly epitomize this phenomenon, as attested by their numerous clownish antics in public and in the South African parliament. Their outlandish rhetoric and love for public spectacle are however offset by an overzealous revolutionary militancy that is seen by their supporters as a radical way of fighting racial inequalities and worker’s rights.
Thus, they will often disrupt parliamentary proceedings and rile up the crowds against the ANC establishment and non-African minorities, while not offering any substantive solutions to the numerous grievances they have raised over the years.
The end goal of this gross rhetoric thus seems to be geared towards gaining political capital through opportunistic and demagogic leadership by taking a contentious political problem like land redistribution and intertwining it with rabble-rousing spectacles (like song and dance), inciteful speech, and hysteria.
But Julius Malema’s supporters easily overlook this, since his party the EFF, has rightly been denouncing pervasive structural problems that afflict South African society like, government corruption, as well rampant mismanagement in state corporations like ESKOM and South African Airlines.
However, they fall short in proposing coherent solutions as their unhinged rhetoric only works in a binary black and white world, where anti-elitist posturing is seen to be the panacea that will magically solve everything. Put differently, the support they draw from their supporters is founded on spin and spectacle, that panders to an anti-elitist stance that can easily mislead most of their supporters to believe that their eccentricity and larger than life persona translates to radical solutions.
This is why it’s so difficult to criticize such leaders since their revolutionary zeal latches onto very emotive issues (like land redistribution) or very aspirational political philosophies. Indeed, that is why Julius Malema sometimes comes off as a pan-Africanist, since he is one of the few South African politicians who always strongly condemns xenophobic attacks against immigrants of African origin who live and work in South Africa. He is also one of the few African leaders who still actively call for a united state of Africa whose official language would be Swahili.
As such, when he invokes any talking points from these two political agendas, his followers and admirers (some of whom are not South Africans), can easily overlook the rest of his inciteful rhetoric since these two issues can easily strike a chord with many black people.
Curiously, journalists and political analysts are almost automatically primed not to take the EFF’s unhinged behavior seriously since many tend to conclude that they only play a marginal role in South African politics.
Their dismissive attitude seems to stem from the fact that political buffoons are not only absurdly comical but they also embarrassingly lack political acumen and administrative skills. This is particularly exasperating for those people who work around them since it is virtually impossible to engage with them in a logical way. In fact, a media interview with a political buffoon is likely to quickly degenerate to personal attacks and other juvenile derailing tactics.
However, by not shining a light on this phenomenon, we may end up normalizing court jester and inept clownishness in the public sphere and once this conspicuous boundary is crossed, sober deliberation on issues of national importance becomes impossible. The recent state of the nation address in South Africa that was almost sabotaged by the EFF is a good example that perfectly highlights this phenomenon.
This is because intemperate buffoons rely on disdainful and comical caricature to crudely lampoon those who disagree with them and when this becomes the acceptable mode of political communication, journalists and political commentators become progressively oblivious to visible instances of lack of impulse control from these leaders. Consequently, such leaders are no longer held to any standards by the media fraternity. (Ironically, it is the journalists themselves who occasionally bear the brunt of this capricious behavior by being subjected to insults, threats, and ridicule.)
In short, the buffoon as an antithesis to public decorum and statecraft represents a departure from the norm, and once the initial shock wears off, any veneer of civility in the political sphere is thrown out and soon, the political space becomes a fool’s paradise that gives behest to buffoons to act out their eccentric impulses.
This has already taken shape in Kenya, where county assemblies and county governments are now becoming the new fool’s paradise where professional civil servants increasingly find themselves working around demagogues who govern impulsively. In Nairobi County, the office of the governor together with the country assembly has over the years acquired a notorious legacy since belligerent deliberation, insulting opponents, and even brawling, occasionally dominates some meetings.
Accordingly, in such an environment where reasoned deliberation is rare, engaging in juvenile antics has become the accepted technique of doing politics. This is particularly evident in how the Nairobi county governor, Mike Mbuvi Sonko, treats the media and the public to an excess dose of clownish antics that are characterized by self-aggrandizing eccentricities, misguided rantings, and off-the-cuff barbs that are sometimes filled with obscenities.
Of course, the hyperbolized nature of these public theatrics and political performances does not occur before a captive audience. In fact, political buffoonery requires active audience participation since juvenile foolishness and comical provocative blunders are seen in the eyes of the audience as signs of being a decisive, straightforward, an authentic leader who speaks truth to power, and a man of action.
Being seen as a man of action by a disfranchised electorate is extremely important, given that their most urgent needs always require immediate solutions. For a country without a robust welfare system, this is always bound to leave a huge part of the electorate always angry at whatever government is in place. Political buffoons know this. As such, they will take advantage of this “disenfranchisement crisis” to build a formidable political movement through spin and spectacle.
This explains the Nairobi governor’s popularity among poor people living in informal neighborhoods, which he has carefully cultivated through food donations, paying hospital bills for them, and bringing water bowsers to the slums. These paternalistic and benevolent gestures thus cement his political support among this marginalized electorate. This is despite the fact that he lacks any ability to come up with long-lasting solutions to solve these problems.
This is why in my assessment I consider a political buffoon to be a more toxic demagogue than your usual political opportunists.
However, it would be naïve to imagine that there is always this sort of calculated strategy in demagogic buffoonery. On the contrary, for a political buffoon, the ease in which they arrive at decisions is in part due to their unpredictability to the extent that, almost every decision they make, gives the impression that it was formed as they speak. (A cursory glance at how they conduct press conferences and political rallies seem to confirm this hypothesis).
Undoubtedly, these impromptu roadside declarations usually come as a huge surprise to anyone who works around them and unfortunately, no-one will dare question them since their buffoonish belligerence scares everyone into silence.
Can Political Buffoonery in Africa Ever Be Contained?
While the functioning logic of political buffoonery is hard to decipher, the irony is that it’s so overtly and unapologetically expressed that everyone (including the most ardent followers of political buffoons), intuitively know that there is something slightly unorthodox about their favorite demagogues.
By contrast, a divide emerges in how people interpret these outlandish antics, with some seeing the obvious manipulation and opportunism, while others seeing a radical and authentic leader with an “outsider appeal”, who is not shy to question the status quo.
This is why there is a good reason to suppose that political buffoons are only temporary distractions in the political scene that take advantage of extremely polarizing political issues like economic inequality and political marginalization. But that is only one part of the explanation since complex social factors are also at play.
We have previously argued that political buffoonery does not take part before a captive audience. But rather, a section of the electorate plays a cheering role in encouraging in these antics – also aptly referred to as the theatricalization of politics. In some way, it is almost an interdependent social relationship, where, as the audience demands more spectacle, so does the political buffoon amplify his juvenile antics.
Accordingly, this means that political buffoonery is often socially endorsed even when it conspicuously deliberately disparages and mocks social decorum. This is extremely worrying since with the social endorsement to act out their unhinged antics, political buffoons can never be held to the same standards as we would with other politicians.
This is why in my assessment I consider a political buffoon to be a more toxic demagogue than your usual political opportunists.
Charles Waiganjo holds post-graduate qualifications in philosophy and political science. He completed his studies at the Université Michel de Montaigne, and at the Université de Bordeaux.