Jon Cayzer
Jon Cayzer

Why SA demands a reluctant Obama

President Barack Obama’s re-election last week reminds us that the embrace of diversity is America’s greatest gift to the world. South Africa, like the United States, is one of the world’s most diverse countries with a similar burden of history of racial separation. This had led some of us in the small cocooned world of politics to ask if an Obama figure could win in South Africa.

At first blush, the answer seems to be no.

South Africa, with a bigger youth demographic than America, appears to have a penchant for choosing presidents of retirement age. Actually, we don’t. If we could directly elect our president, President Jacob Zuma would have spent a lot more time in the green hills of Nkandla or, possibly, as a guest of correctional services over the last few years.

Our presidents are minted by a strict party-list system of proportional representation: the winning party truly takes all. Prior to that, the Byzantine process of intrigue and skulduggery from which the ANC leader emerges makes a papal conclave look fun and transparent.

These two factors mean that the arc of national leadership bends towards predictability and safety, not the themes of “audacity” and “change”.

But to just focus on Obama’s relative youthfulness to explain his victory is to miss the point. Obama won, in large part, because he is a man of our time. He knows what makes his fellow citizens tick because he led a life similar to many of them in recent memory.

Much of the media coverage on how Obama won has correctly honed in on the sophisticated data techniques used to capture minority voters. But the appeal of Obama’s core message was derived from the one that has guided America since the time of the founding fathers. As diverse as we may be, we share similar aspirations. And we are bound together as one nation under God.

Obama was not especially young when, at 47, he became president in 2008. His Democratic Party predecessors, John F Kennedy and Bill Clinton, were younger when they became president. Here, of course, grooming, pedigree and image are all.

President Obama was 35 when he assumed his first public office as a junior Illinois senator. Importantly, he had done normal things before going into public life. Obama had not treaded the path of professional politician through the Democrat Party machinery. He had been a law lecturer and Chicago community organiser on the gritty South Side. He had a wealth of life experience to draw upon. His wife’s earnings far outstripped his. They could have got along just fine without going into public life.

One of my greatest privileges during my year at the Kennedy School of Government was to attend a breakfast with Clinton’s former defence secretary, William Perry.

“There goes Lenin”, Perry, the evening before, had boyishly called out to his delighted audience, at a news clip of Lenin’s statue being hoisted by a helicopter over a former Soviet city.

No one had anticipated that the octogenarian would generously pepper the dry sounding Robert McNamara Lecture on War and Peace with interactive images.

Perry, happily tenured as an academic at Stanford University and was well into his 60s when Clinton asked him to come to Washington as defence secretary. His wife had a thriving legal practice in Palo Alto. Clinton had to plead with Perry several times before he agreed with the proviso that it would only be for one term. Perry went on to negotiate several treaties to dramatically cut America and Russia’s nuclear stockpile.

My key point, though, is that it was a dreadful wrench for Perry to go to DC. I doubt the same can be said of many South African politicians who go to Cape Town. And I think I know why: money.

The salary packages South African parliamentarians get is scandalous, eclipsing the salaries of their British and German counterparts. The result is that in a poor country with a thin tax crust, like ours, an MP’s salary in excess of R800 000 can become aspirational rather than sacrificial. Would a career in South African politics be as attractive if, say, the package was R400 000? This figure itself is higher than the household income of the average South African home.

I often hear people (usually MPs) say that parliamentarians need to be well-paid in order to attract the “best” from the private and public sector. Not only does this not always appear to be evidence-based, the obvious rejoinder is: why? The best politicians everywhere are the reluctant ones; individuals who had to give up something. The entire point of public service is that one is expected to lay aside self-interest to contribute to the public good; to be a servant.

The Perry principle demonstrates that we need people who come into public service kicking and screaming. I am astonished how often I hear twentysomethings here, and in other countries, say they want to become parliamentarians. What talent or constituency do (most of them) possibly think they would bring to political life?

Making South African politics youthful and energetic will require more than fast-tracking young people into public office. If only it was that easy.

Being young is a time in life, not a quality in itself. Speaking at the University of Cape Town, Robert Kennedy famously described youth as being a state of mind, not a time in life. We need youthful politicians who have wrestled with balance sheets, turned around schools and hospitals, mastered legal briefs, captained military units, dispensed life-saving drugs to the world’s poorer spots, led faith-based congregations — and maybe one or two who, unlike Clinton, did inhale.

Only then, maybe, will a “reluctant” Obama figure step forward to lead South Africa.

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    • Lennon

      What is the DA’s obession with Obama?

      Obama is scumbag of the highest order. One who has repeatedly by-passed the US Congress in order to get his own way (he has the highest number of executive orders than any previous US president); has signed off on laws which continue to erode the freedoms espoused in the US Constitution and Bill of Rights and thanks to NDAA 2012 now has the “legal” authority to assassinate any US citizen (which has already happened when two Americans were murdered in a drone bombing run in Yemen).

      He lied about shutting down Guantanamo Bay. No real investigation has been done on the torturing of prisoners who are held there or at any of the other US prisons dotted around the globe. He has continued infringing on the sovereignty of other countries (Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia); His continued bombing of Libya is another example of both this and side-stepping Congress because he didn’t obtain their permission to continue the campaign (something Leon Panetta brushed off in the House when asked about it).

      He also lied about repealing th PATRIOT Act and has continued to convert the US into a police state with warrantless tappeing of all communications. The Stuxnet and Flame worms which “converniently” targetted Iran’s nuclear plants were proven to be US government products and he has just signed another order allowing more overt cyber espionage against other countries.


    • Lennon

      TSA harrassment has been extended to rail and busses now. Nothing like being groped when you’re about to board a plane. The stasi-styled FBI snitch programs are also worrisome as are the drones which are now coming into service to patrol domestic airspace.

      Abuses by the police also appear to be on the increase with plenty of people being tased every week (including a guy who was trying to fight a fire which engulfed his neighbour’s house).

      It’s also telling that gun sales have reach a record high since he was re-elected and that there are now 700 000 signatures on petitions calling for secession from the Federal government.

      The US has been financing and arming the fake rebels in Syria. It is also looking to establish more permanent bases in Africa (100 permanent troops stationed in Uganda with more on the way and now talk of going into Mali). They have thousands dotted around the world; continue to put up these missile “shields” which is nothing more than a strategy to keep Russia in check. The CIA has stated that Iran doesn’t have any nukes, but that little nugget of truth has been ignored.

      US elections are a farce. The media (which funds both D and R campaigns) continues to ignore the other political parties. No other parties were permitted to take part in the presidential debates (Jill Stein of the Green Party was arrested for showing up at the second debate to protest this exclusion).

      What do you see in this man?

    • Trevor

      Yes, I think reluctance is often a true indicator of genuine calling; viz. of vocation. On this ground alone, but on many others too, someone like Zuma, for instance, just doesn’t qualify. The signs are there every day. It oozes out of him, albeit with the charm.

    • Tofolux

      @Jon, let me remind you that our electoral system is part of our negotiated process. ALL parties were represented and ALL accepted and agreed to this system. If any person insists that they believe in democracy then they must respect our decision. So, I insist that you respect this constitional decision. Inasfar as Obama or any other US President is concerned, I am rather aghast that this underlying suggestion is made that the US leader is the de-facto leader of the world. It seems that this suggestion is made that a US President reigns over other sovereign country and that it is the US who rules the world. This is an arrogant and smacks of disrespect for any other democratically elected leader in the World. In fact, there is absolutely nothing to admire in any of these leaders past or present. Leaders in Africa especially those schooled along revolutionary lines have had far more influence in bettering the lives of those they are in service of. WIth all the money in the World and apart from all the wars, what difference has American leaders made in the lives of Americans?

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Americans don’t “directly elect’ their president either, and their system is unproductive, time wasting, expensive, and loses all institutional memory after either 4 or 8 years.

      Which is why I prefer the Prime Minister systems of Great Britain, Holland and Scandinavia.

    • Taurai

      Jon raises an an interesting view but is South Africa in need of an Obama figure or dare I say the Perry principle: young and energetic leader who has not only mastered but has passion for legal briefs and community based advocacy but relunctantly and perhaps kicking and screaming give up their true passion for the national national service?

      South Africa and the USA may indeed have citizens and residents with diverse racial, cultural and social classes but the similarities end there. The USA struggles with a minority that clamours for more rights and socio-economic opportunities. South Africa struggles with the exact opposite: a majority clamouring for more rights and socio-economic opportunities!

      South Africa has a ticking time bomb: a majority fast losing patience with capital and a constitutional democracy that has normalized the patently abnormal and unjust levels of poverty endured by the majority.

      South Africa has an unsustainable reality: a judiciary that fails to understand constitutionalism beyond the protection of rights acquired from the unjust privileges of apartheid; capital that does not see the self interest in mobilsing for immediate poverty turnaround; and an executive that only deracialised a system that essentially perpetuates economic oppression of the majority.

      South Africa requires not an Obama figure or Perry principle but another Mandela figure, a lifelong but commiited person, this time not focusing on reconciliation but reversing pverty.

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Tofolux, the system you have in SA is not a democratic system and wasn’t decided by the people of that country. SA is run by a group of kingmakers and the people have no voice in the government. In the US the president, members of congress, mayor and governors are all elected by the people. The officials in SA are not elected by the people and accountable to the people of SA. In the US one can start at the grass root level and work their way up to be president.

      In SA one can’t take their show on the road to the people and get the people to support them. The speaker of parliament has gone on record as saying the people are too ignorant to be allowed to elect their president of members of parliament. The ANC and DA all think that the masses in SA are too ignorant to have a voice in the government. Another reason for setting up the PR system in SA is to keep tribalism from showing their face.

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Beddy, one state in the US is larger then all of the countries you name but, all of those countries the people directly elected the officials in the government.

      In the US the people have to vote for the president in each state in order for that candidate to get the electoral votes. In SA the people don’t elect nobody to office so, it is not a democracy. The thinking by the elite in the ANC and DA that the people in SA are too ignorant to be allowed to make rational decisions about the government. If the people could vote people out of office like in the US, many people in the government would have been long gone from office in SA. Santo has gone on record as saying he has to rule because the state wouldn’t exist without him in Angola.

      However, Ghana had a direct election and it worked out very well in this country. When their president passed away a few month ago the vice president was sworn in with no problems.

    • Juju Esq.

      Thanks Jon. Very interesting read.

    • Dave Harris

      The overt prejudice you exhibit against older people is indeed shameful!!

      You caricature of American politicians as reluctant noble public servants like Perry is cuckoo and what’s worse is your comparison of American politicians to SA politicians! Unlike their American counterparts led relatively stable economic and political lives, most SA politicians, especially our elder statesmen were busy trying to survive the brutality of your apartheid regime and sacrificed the personal and professional lives of themselves and their families for our liberation.

      Like the rest of your DA politicians, you will never understand what it took to achieve our liberation.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy


      We are going around in circles. So answer this question – How is the American system better than the British, Dutch and Scandinavian?

    • maggielou

      Thanks for raising the scandalous (US$ based) salaries these politicians earn. How ‘noble’ of Zuma to suggest a ‘pay freeze’. Goodness – an increase of only 2% p.a. for them equals the total annual income of a large portion in this country. They are the last ones who need any increase, considering all the perks they get. THEY HAVE TO TAKE A 50% CUT and grants, pensions and minimum wages should be quadrupled. Only that way will the equality gap be narrowed. I have written before that the lowest paid in any organisation should earn a min. of 10% of what the top earners get. The top earners get too much in relation to the lowest earners. Scandalous.

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Beddy, all of the countries you name are democracies however, the US gives power to the people on the grass root level to run their government. The idea of democracy is to give the people a voice in running their government on a grass root level.

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Lennon, true Americans don’t engaged in plots to commit terror against other Americans.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      The salaries of the ANC elite are 7 times higher than the salaries of all other South Africans, including the idiots who run the parastatals – because they are worked out by “international standards” in dollars.

      I have pointed out before that the ANC do not identify as South Africans.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy


      All those countries – plus Switzerland and Australia – have very much devolved power to local authorities. How much do you know about any system except the American? Anyhow forget local power – they all have that.In Australia a national law can’t be passed unless every state passes it seperately, and the Swiss cantons have even stronger local powers.

      What other reason can you come up with that the American Presidential system is better than their Prime Minister systems?

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Beddy, very interesting because most Europeans all rave about how close the government is to the people in the US. Many of those countries you name are copying the US style of government. On the other hand the SA government is making a mistake of not bringing the government closer to the people.

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Beddy, after the failure of communism there have developed a group of Red Capitalists, these people are part of the ruling parties in those countries. In China and Russia the members of the communists parties are ones that have became very wealthy along with members of their families. In SA the government is following in the footsteps of China and Russia by giving comrades those high salaries and tenders. In China the Red Capitalists have taken over the communists party and it has created a problem for China. You should go into key words and you will find some good articles on Red Capitalists.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy


      The only country that seems to be copying any USA structure is Britain – with the new idea of electing judicial representatives, which I think a big mistake – the use of elected officers in the local law is the reason for most of the bad judgements in the USA.

    • Lennon

      @ Sterling: True Americans are also not allowed to win “elections”.

    • Momma Cyndi

      America had the choice between a religious nutcase and a man who didn’t make good on promises. Not much of a choice.

      The problem with us is that we don’t understand the whole mechanism of the US system. I certainly don’t understand it. This whole having to get things through numerous ‘houses’ to get anything done and the lobbying thing – it isn’t what we do or, from what I’ve seen, want to do.

      I like the Malawi system where a few names of hopefulls get thrown against the wall and the people decide which ones stick. First choice is President, second choice is Vice-President and third choice is Chancellor. That is my idea of a good system

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Lennon, a country as mobile as the US, I have no problems with being search if it means protecting my safety. There are nuts in the US and outside the US looking to get their names in a history book by blowing up buildings, buses and trains.