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Historical and Contemporary Expressions of Populism in Africa and Beyond

Populism has re-emerged across the globe, displaying multiple, left and right leaning variants and provoking complex engagements with the limits of liberal democracy. There is a new generation of populists on the African stage, offering contradictory and often disturbing visions regarding Africa’s future. Some, including Julius Malema and the Economic Freedom Fighters in South Africa, have re- imagined concepts and policies linked historically to theories on the left, while others, such as David Bahati and the anti-gay campaigners of Uganda, have advanced a deeply conservative and reactionary religiosity. These new forms of populism that are being expressed across the political spectrum invite careful analysis of the continuities and ruptures in African politics from the 20th to the 21st centuries, as well as the ways in which ideas and movements travel across national boundaries. Several contemporary populist movements are historically rooted in older movements on the continent, and those histories provide linguistic markers and affective registers for contemporary encounters. Yet the current brands of populism are also distinctive in their own right, rather than simply being a re- packaging and reiteration of national liberation. As in the 1950s and 60s—the era of decolonization— when newly independent African states were sometimes confronted with populist movements that challenged their technocratic and nationalist frames, the failures of postcolonial developmental projects have provoked contestations today. Moreover, in the 1970s, African dictators drew on new media— radio and television in particular—to define for their audiences new modes of political and cultural belonging. Social media today is different from that period in reach and in tone, but it has made possible the creation of new spaces and organisational forms for politics. For example, aided by social media, social movements, especially queer and feminist organisations, have escalated in intensity and appeal over the past several decades, and these also shape the contours of populism. Their aspirations and objectives significantly inform populist rhetoric, either acting as subjects of its many demands, or as the objects of derision.

This workshop will reflect on the cultural and political registers and infrastructures of populism in Africa (and elsewhere). What circumstances invite (some) people to see themselves as an oppressed majority? What work do authenticité and other nativist agendas do to clarify identities and marginalize minorities? What is the relationship between African forms of liberal democracy, and development in particular, and populism? Are populist movements opening up spaces for new forms of gendered political performances? Finally, what lessons can be learned from the past as African, American, and European democracies together confront a renewed wave of nativist enthusiasm?