The next president of the United States found his political voice, he writes in Dreams From My Father, through the antiapartheid movement–at a rally calling for divestment from South Africa while he was at Occidental College, to be precise. He discovered that he could use the South African freedom struggle to demand that his fellow students choose sides: not “between black and white” but between “dignity and servitude,” “fairness and injustice,” “commitment and indifference,” “right and wrong.”
Obama’s story points to the symbolic significance of the South African struggle, particularly in the United States, where the antiapartheid solidarity movement inherited the mantle of the world’s great moral cause from the civil rights movement. If the last great redemptive moment in global politics was Nelson Mandela’s liberation and ascent to power in the early 1990s, then Obama’s election has provided the next. Once more, a choice has been made: if not quite between “dignity and servitude” or even “right and wrong,” then certainly between “commitment and indifference”–and, accordingly, between hope and cynicism, engagement and alienation.
The global euphoria triggered by the Obama moment gave us South Africans a particular buzz. Superficially, this had to do with the politics of identity: not just that he was a black man, an African, but that his very being expressed our struggle’s “nonracial” values. In South Africa, remember, there was an Immorality Act that forbade intimate relations across the color bar, let alone marriage. The “unlawful carnal act” that produced Obama could have landed his parents in jail if it had taken place in South Africa–and certainly would have rendered the young family social outcasts.
But there is another dimension to South Africa’s exhilaration after the Obama victory. When we woke up on the morning of November 5 to Obama’s victory speech in Grant Park, we found ourselves reliving our “Mandela Moment” nearly fifteen years earlier. This was bittersweet: our era of redemptive politics has come and gone, and we find ourselves mired in a postindependence era of disillusionment and cynicism, with leaders not only inarticulate but manifestly self-interested and morally compromised.
Jacob Zuma, the man who will become South Africa’s next president in April, is no Mandela. Deeply tainted by corruption and rape allegations (although cleared of the latter) and chronically in debt to the many interest groups and individuals who have supported him, he will in all likelihood be the accused in a long-drawn-out corruption trial even as he governs the country. Indeed, there are many who believe that Zuma’s primary motivation in seeking the highest office is to keep himself out of jail.
Zuma’s ascendancy–and the ousting of his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki–has had one salutary effect: finally, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has splintered, and a new party, the Congress of the People (COPE), has become the first viable alternative for black voters since the advent of democracy. Not surprisingly, COPE has been keen to invoke the Obama Revolution: at the party’s founding conference in December, the delegates chanted “Hope!” and “Change!” at every opportunity, and its organizers are trying to replicate the Obama campaign’s savvy use of new media and digital technology to mobilize young supporters, particularly in the booming black middle class.
But the truth is that COPE’s senior leaders are compromised too: the key players were lieutenants of Mbeki, defeated along with their leader by the Zuma insurgency within the ANC. They thus find it difficult to shake the allegation that they are acting out of self-interest (or sour grapes, at least) in taking up against the Zuma-led ANC. Their stated aspirations to usher in a more responsive and accountable democracy ring hollow too, given that they were for so long part of the very oligarchy that buttressed Mbeki. They may well have impeccable credentials as freedom fighters, but there is nothing in their demeanor or their oratory–let alone their intellects–to suggest that they might become South African Obamas.
Like many South Africans, I have the deepest yearnings for a politician of Obama’s caliber to emerge out of postapartheid South Africa; having voted Mandela into office in 1994, we know exactly what it feels like, too. But perhaps paradoxically, there is something of a relief in being free, at last, of the politics of redemption. In the adolescent South African democracy, this is a critical rite of passage: coming to grips with the truth that politicians are flawed and self-interested men rather than liberating godheads.
Similar to the way the Obama campaign has mobilized Americans, Mandela’s victory in 1994 unlocked a powerful sense of agency among all South Africans. But this dissipated over the subsequent decade and a half, as citizens seemed to cede their rights to a paternal, omnipotent leadership reminiscent of age-old feudal African society. The result has been an alienation rendered all the more profound by a crisis of expectation. There are high stakes indeed to the politics of redemption, as Barack Obama is about to discover.