Is an Obama possible in South Africa?
I have followed this campaign fairly closely, and from a starting point of reserved judgment, and no small amount of skepticism, I have to admit that I am inspired. This inspiration is at least partly due to the fact that Obama’s campaign, and the politics he is attempting to offer America and the world, is bold and big, and is in marked contrast to the politics on offer here in South Africa, which is narrow and small.
In it, Obama hugs a worker at a factory in Ohio. You don’t even need to see the woman’s face to know how happy and hopeful she is.
I was immediately struck by the difference between the US political scene, and our own.
Around the same time Mr. Obama was making his case to the workers of Ohio, attempting to convince and inspire them to support his campaign to reshape America’s politics to be more civil, progressive, and oriented to the needs of ordinary Americans, what was happening here in South Africa?
Jacob Zuma was ‘lashing out at ANC charlatans’, threatening decisive action against those disaffected members, allegedly seeking to leave the ANC and form a new political party in opposition.
The supposed ANC split drama which has been playing out in the media for a few weeks. As far as I can tell, it seems that recently resigned former Minister of Defense Terror Lekota, assisted by his former Deputy Minister of Defense, Mluleki George, are rallying disaffected ANC members around the country to form a breakaway party, to uphold what they believe to be the true values of the ANC.
The whole thing is unseemly, because while I believe an ANC split would be beneficial to South Africa’s politics, inasmuch as it could inject some significant political competition, and real uncertainty into the political sphere.
What alarmed me was ANC President Jacob Zuma’s statement that “It’s cold out there if you are out of the ANC, very cold.”
In my view, one of the main reasons South Africa’s best and brightest blacks continue to either support the ANC or simply abstain from opposing them- which has contributed to the current de facto one party state- is the economic benefits associated with supporting or not being seen to oppose the ‘ruling party’.
South Africa is not a meritocracy. Success, in terms of employment opportunities, and lucrative business opportunities- at least as far as anything part of or influenced by the public sector- is determined by [political] connections and relationships more so than capability and merit. Black South Africa knows this, Black South Africa accepts this.
The leadership of the ANC comprises a black political elite, which also partly comprises, and overlaps with, the black economic elite. Basically, if you want to make it as a black person in South Africa, to operate outside of the warm embrace of the ANC is to be very cold indeed. As such, many either support the ANC or keep quiet and hope for the best.
This may not have been what Jacob Zuma was referring to, but it might as well have been.
Barack Obama is essentially the head of the Democratic Party. While the comparison is not exact, imagine if he said that those Hillary Clinton supporters who feel disaffected, must either fall in line or face decisive action, and that they had better be very sure about their threats to support McCain as it is ‘very cold outside of the Democratic Party.’
You can’t even imagine such a thing.
Obama, for his part, spends his time trying to convince Americans that he understands their best interests, has a vision to move the country forward, and is capable of doing so. Confident and yet humble- as humble as one can be while believing one is the person the entire nation needs to lead them- Obama is making his case to the people, not just to members of his party, and the voters that traditionally support them, but to the entire nation.
What do we have in South Africa? We have Polokwane.
Our dysfunctional, diluted democracy is in large part due to our unfortunate electoral system. South Afirca voters elect parties, who then ‘deploy’ party officials to parliament and government. These ‘deployees’, are then accountable first and foremost to party bosses, as Thabo Mbeki and the rest of the nation discovered several weeks ago. American voters elect individuals directly, to local and state office via geographic constituencies, and the President directly (almost directly, as there is the small problem of the antiquated electoral college process which famously allowed Mr. George W. Bush to be elected President despite Mr. Albert Gore winning the popular vote.)
So no matter how arrogant an American politician is, he still has to be responsive to the people if he wants to keep his job. In South Africa, a politician needs chiefly to be responsive to his party if he wants to keep his job. It is this disproportionately powerful role accorded to the party in the undemocratic party-‘deployee’ relationship dynamic, rather than the inherently democratic voter-representative relationship dynamic, which is the source of much of South Africa’s democratic and political difficulty.
Black America has also shown a dangerous tendency to be complacent in solving communal problems, waiting for a Great Charismatic Leader to singlehandedly deliver them to the promised land. A Black President represents the ultimate in this dangerous fantasy, and they will need a real, bottom up, community-wide effort to solve the problems they face. A President Obama, can only provide a symbolic catalyst/opportunity/new beginning, for them to get to work saving themselves.
Many South Africans have followed Barack Obama’s campaign with interest. He is not a saint, and even though he has been campaigning for the better part of 2 years due to the excruciatingly long US election process, he has only just begun. While he is likely to win the election, he has it all to prove. January’s inauguration is only the beginning. He will have to show that he really can restore civility to a determinedly uncivil politics, unite a very divided country, and restore progressive leadership to a declining superpower.
What is certain though, is that even in his unproven state, he offers Americans a fundamentally decent, respectful, compassionate, hopeful, democratic and progressive politics that South Africans can only dream of.