A New Day in America – Lessons for Africa

Image: Flickr, Jason Means
Image: Flickr, Jason Means

For the first time in many years, a political event brought tears to my eyes as Barack Obama was elected at the 44th president of the United States of America.

The news shows and radio call-in programmes in America and South Africa were full of elated conversation about the symbolism of the US electing its first black president, of the fulfilment of Martin Luther King’s famous dream that America would one day live up to the full meaning of its creed.

My eyes grew misty from the realisation that it is possible to overcome the most intractable divides. That white Americans could vote in huge numbers for their first black president affirms Obama’s refrain on the audacity of hope. As an American living in South Africa for 15 years, this election reminds me of my home country’s ability to reinvent itself and adapt to adversity. But it also raises important questions and comparisons with democratic practice in Africa, which ought to particularly concentrate minds as South Africa itself heads into an important election next year.

Much has been said about the dignity with which John McCain conceded defeat and said the nature of the Obama campaign earned his respect and the equally magnanimous way Obama spoke after his victory. Both men deserve credit for such graciousness, but they are following a vital national tradition. It has been a hallmark of US elections that the defeated candidate accepts the verdict of the public, praises his opponent and pledges his full support to the new national leader. This practice has been sadly lacking in African politics, where losers invariably accuse the winner of cheating, or incumbents rush to inaugurate themselves when reelected, leaving no time for possible legal challenges (as in Malawi or Zambia recently). In South Africa, the grace with which the 1994 election was handled has given way to an acrimonious and vengeful tone that is spreading and sounding ever closer to the tone of politics elsewhere on the continent.

Obama set a great example because he had the wisdom to know that anger and vengefulness begets the same in one’s opponents. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela understood this, as did many of his generation. But Thabo Mbeki, it seems, did not. As has been often said, the present vindictiveness gripping South African politics was his creation. His opponents, instead of rising above his level, seem to need to get the boot in, which has brought about round after round of tit for tat. Once such a vicious cycle takes hold of politics, it can be very hard to ever return to civility and the pursuit of common ground. Politics, according to the Julius Malema school (current ANC Youth League head), is about demonstrating ever more dramatic forms of militancy, about fighting and conflict and elimination of enemies.

But fighting and democracy don’t mix well. Hillary Clinton believed that this kind of ideological class warfare language was the way to win. Fortunately, Obama believed that although harsh rhetoric may appeal to a significant group, it is not what the US as a whole wanted or needed. He seemed to recognise that civility is itself an incredibly valuable thing. It is too often taken for granted or derided as unmanly or a sign of weakness. In so doing, politicians send a signal that they don’t value and embrace all of their countrymen and women, only those who acquiesce to the ruling clique. In contrast a commitment to civility is a demonstration that we all need and respect each other and care that the other is aggrieved by our actions.

Too many African democracies have unravelled because leaders simplistically think that democracy means that the winning majority gets to do whatever it wants. Rather, democracy must be a combination of majority leadership and rigorous protection of those with minority views, different religions or varied ethnic backgrounds. Minority protections are also vital to service delivery and progress. The ‘we won so we can do what we want’ instinct is the same one that ignores public protest, incessantly blames the media and dismisses citizens appealing to government for redress. A system that truly respects minority views starts with government that listens and responds positively to complaint from any quarter. That has been increasingly lacking in South Africa these past years and it is feeding uncivil and vengeful currents.

Maintaining civility in parliament, at the postal counter, in the press and in every encounter with others is part of preserving public trust, which is vital to economic and social progress and peace. Parliaments and courts maintain elaborate rules of decorum because the early pioneers of democracy recognised that without conscious efforts to maintain civility, tempers can easily flare and conflicts can spiral out of control.

Obama also draws attention to what happens in the absence of civility. One hundred years after a civil war was fought to end slavery, discrimination was still alive and well in the United States. Even though the civil rights movement finally brought matters to a head and a variety of civil rights laws and affirmative action programmes were put in place from the mid 1960s, feelings of bitterness, suspicion and resentment continued among blacks and whites. As Michele Obama put it, she never until this election felt truly proud of her country until now. Although she was criticised for it, it ought to be a wake-up call when a nation has millions of citizens feeling marginalised, excluded and disrespected.

In many nations, those who seek to heal racial wounds have turned to a predictable set of tools using various forms of affirmative action. But putting in place such programmes, alone, has not alleviated the lingering sense of grievance that surrounds minorities in the US, France, the UK, and many other nations. African states have taken elaborate steps to forge governments composed of all ethnic groups. Some, like Nigeria, even wrote this into its constitution. But programmes alone often fail to take away bitter feelings, which can be propagated from one generation to the next for decades.

Some critics of affirmative action argue that political and racial minorities should stop complaining and just get on with life. But they miss the point. The danger is that grievance lives on in the collective memory and is always there to be exploited by the right demagogue. South African leaders should understand that the bitterness felt by many toward Thabo Mbeki’s rule is real and needs to be dealt with. But the answer is not to do it by fostering ever more clever plans to vanquish and humiliate one’s opponents. Clearly, the Mbeki era highlighted the need for some rules of order to restrain and civilise the exercise of power. Now more than ever, South Africa needs to have a conversation about what went wrong systemically and how a better system might be devised. That should include the discussion of direct election of parliament, premiers, mayors and the president. It also should include transparency in political party finance, the fair use of the electronic media to foster intelligent, civil policy-oriented political debate. It should include candid discussion of how well-meaning Black Economic Empowerment and affirmative action policies have often been hijacked in ways that turn politics into a greedy struggle for access to the quick riches to be had from controlling government. The ruling party has spent 14 years denying that there even is such a concept as conflict of interest. That desperately needs to change.

If civil rights, affirmative action and other laws don’t end the cycles of grievance in society, what can? It is crucial for Africa to recognise that no formal programme or law can substitute for a change of heart, for demonstrations of decency and inclusion. These things can only be accomplished on the political stage by leaders wise enough to see the need for rebuilding trust and civility through both symbolic and substantive actions.

Affirmative action without scrupulous attention to implementation and conflict of interest can be a recipe for corruption as politically connected elites always have better access to information and manipulate quotas and regulations to divert the good intentions of affirmative action. Those who sponsored affirmative action laws inevitably deny administrative problems and conflict of interest among elites. Problems fester under the denial and new forms of grievance are spawned. Africa has tried myriad schemes to supposedly ensure that power and benefits are shared out to all groups, but all have eventually failed, leaving much cynicism behind. The only long-term stable solutions are based on two things that must be combined: heavy investments in building opportunity – through education and provision of public services – and heavy emphasis on merit based hiring, which must sharply limit hiring opportunities based on political connections.

Obama won because he steadfastly refused to run a campaign angrily demanding more for his group. He argued instead for more and better government for all. I firmly believe that Hillary Clinton would have lost if she had been the Democratic candidate because she appeared unable to move beyond the language of conflict and partisan division. I hope that all of those who hope to lead South Africa consider those lessons and follow in Obama’s footsteps.