Co-responsibility, not populism, is what Brazil and South Africa need

​‘The country of the future, and it always will be.’ This was Brazil during the boom and bust years of the 1970s and ‘80s, when its people wondered if their country would ever realise its vast potential of wealth and opportunity. Today the same adage rings true. After five years of political crisis, economic decline and social upheavals, starting with an anti-corruption investigation that has become the largest in world history, and ending with the election of a right-wing populist, Brazilians and the world at large are asking whether Brazil can claw its way back and finally become the country of the future.

The Brazilian paradox of world-class institutions and pockets of excellence, juxtaposed with perpetual inequality and instability, has emblazoned a fault line of a divided nation. Uncertainty and recurring crises, and not the positivist national motto of “order and progress” adopted by its leaders at independence, defines the Brazil of today.

This sounds all too familiar to South Africans. The high hopes of representative leadership, inclusive governance and a progressive constitution, expected to deliver on this country’s vast economic potential 25 years ago, have failed to materialise. Parallels with Brazil run deep. There are a number of lessons to be learnt, both good and bad.

Brazil’s economy has not delivered substantial growth or opportunity since the end of military rule and the start of democracy in 1985. Over three decades of pedestrian growth have further widened the gap between the haves and have-nots, and placed enormous pressure on Brazil’s political institutions. This has translated into a strange democratic cocktail of mismatched coalitions and a motley crew of populist leaders who have failed to complete the reforms needed for economic advancement and social inclusion.

The numbers speak for themselves. Between 2011 and 2018, the Brazilian economy shrank by a third. Unemployment rose three-fold to 15% and inflation breached 10%, in what economists have described as the worst recession in 50 years.

Some of Brazil’s largest corporations have been reduced to a mere shadow of their former grandeur, losing up to three-quarters of their market capitalisation and revenues as they too became embroiled in corruption. State-owned Petrobras, once the darling of the Lula da Silva administration when it helped raise more than $70-billion in the largest International Public Offering (IPO) in history, became the centre of the Operation Carwash corruption scandal, and admitted to paying $2.5-billion in bribes. Large family-run firms, like construction giant Odebrecht and the world’s largest meat company, JBS, are estimated to have spent over $10-billion on graft.

At $2.2-trillion, the Brazilian economy today is still smaller than at its peak in 2012. Crime has increased with the murder rate reaching an all-time-high in 2018, averaging more than 200 murders a day. Business is stifled by the world’s worst company tax burden and poor infrastructure. Economic decline has failed to sustain the burgeoning middle class, and the social programmes that millions have come to rely on are in jeopardy due to funding constraints. This is the result of years of misgovernance, corruption and state capture, well beyond the wildest aspirations of their South African counterparts.

Enter the alternative: President Jair Bolsanaro.

Instead of rising above emerging-market mediocrity, Brazil has adopted a populist pendulum. This started in the early 2000s with the election of Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff from the Workers Part (PT), and continues today with Jair Bolsonaro at the helm.
They may be from opposite sides of the political spectrum, but the PT and Bolsonaro promise the same thing: Renewal through political change. And herein lies the problem. Brazilians seek political solutions and patriarchal figures to solve their ongoing problems. An impossible order in a country with a flawed democracy and a crisis of political legitimacy.

Prior to President Bolsonaro, of the last four presidents elected in Brazil, two were forced from office on grounds of impeachment. Since then, two former presidents have been arrested for corruption. While President Michel Temer has been released despite ongoing investigations, Lula is behind bars serving a 12-year sentence.

After three months in office, Bolsonaro is already under fire. Brazilians are growing impatient, and the president’s support base has diminished as the new administration struggles to navigate the political playing field. High expectations based on the lofty promises of change are not being met. There is a growing realisation that reforms will be slow, if at all. Bolsanaro’s approval rating is the lowest ever recorded for a Brazilian president at the 100-day mark. This adds to a growing concern of the state of democracy in Brazil, not to mention a populist default that has emerged within the country.

A lack of delivery and increasing divisions in Brazil have brought about a populist response. Common conditions for populism include a crisis of political representation, inequality, economic instability and insecurity.

Like Brazil, South Africa has the basic ingredients for the perfect populist storm. This is increasingly evident in the rhetoric around the forthcoming elections, the emergence and style of new political parties, and the growing intolerance that has countered the democratic principles of the early 1990s. As Brazil and a long list of other Latin American countries have shown, populism does not work.

But Brazil does offer an alternative and feasible option for real progress. In the southern city of Curitiba, where Operation Carwash started in 2014 and where Lula is in prison, a different picture of Brazil has emerged. Best known for its urban planning and Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) system exported as best practice around the world, Curitiba has continued to advance its spatial development model over five decades of development, despite fluctuations in the broader national context. This has extended to other areas of sustainable development and shared value, building an inclusive mindset toward a collective impact that has translated to higher levels of growth and income, broad-based opportunity, and the top-ranked location for business and overall well-being in Brazil.

Some see Curitiba as yet another island of excellence in the sea of Brazilian turmoil. But Jaime Lerner, three-term mayor of Curitiba who was the catalyst and driver of urban development and the progressive mindset imbued in the city, believes otherwise.
“Through simple co-responsibility, the Curitiba model can be adopted throughout Brazil,” maintains Lerner.

Changes needn’t be large or expensive. Innovation, he insists, is about starting. But, most important, sustaining these initiatives requires a shared equation and balance that transfers the project from its leaders to the broader community, incorporating the private sector to help build and maintain it.

Curitiba shows that political leadership and continuity are key. More specifically, it is an example of how inclusive planning with measured results that supersede political differences can deliver the progress and opportunities citizens require. Lerner and the people of Curitiba have provided a solution that is both simple and sustainable.

Instead of cyclical blunders, missed opportunities and populist responses, Brazil has other lessons to offer South Africa to avoid it becoming the next “country of the future, and it always will be”. DM

Professor Lyal White is the Senior Director of the Johannesburg Business School (JBS) at the University of Johannesburg. He was recently in Curitiba, Brazil.
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