Charlene Smith
Charlene Smith

Hope returns: Obama’s victory and global politics

Damn, I love Americans. Just when you’ve written them off as hopeless, as a nation in decline, they turn around and do something extraordinary, which tells you why the United States of America is still the greatest nation on earth. But too, what is happening in America and Kenya holds lessons for politicians everywhere, and South Africa would do well to take heed.

Barack Obama’s strong lead in Iowa, nine points ahead of his closest Democratic rival, John Edwards, 10 points ahead of Hillary Clinton, shows we are entering a new world, one where the internet exposes every lie, where chat rooms allow unprecedented discussion, where blogs see commentary untrammelled by the dictates of powerful news corporations. In this world the electorate are no longer stupid, no longer cowed; we may be entering the era of the world’s most savvy voters yet.

In this new world where expression is truly free, where ideas will be the most important currency of the next decade and many of the greatest advances in any field will come from those under the age of 30, politics are undergoing a revolution.

Voters are demanding substance over style. They are showing that it’s not money or how smart a leader appears that counts, they want substance, they want heart, they want leaders who give a damn. After Barrack Obama delivered perhaps the most inspirational speech the US has heard since Martin Luther King or Robert Kennedy — four decades of empty rhetoric was broken by a man who talked of the power of “hope” — he stepped off the stage and the loudspeakers blared out the Motown hit, Here I am baby, signed, sealed, delivered, I’m yours!

And that’s what voters want — politicians that belong to them, not big business. They don’t want politicians who speak down to them like Thabo Mbeki or Hillary Clinton, they want people who speak with them, who understand the nuanced complexities of 21st century day-to-day life.

The angriest voters in the US, South Africa, Kenya, Pakistan — globally — are those battling economically while the rich flaunt their wealth. The wealth gap in the US is now at its widest since 1929: in 2005, 21,2% of US national income accrued to just 1% of earners. In 1968, the CEO of General Motors took home in pay and benefits about 66 times the amount paid to a typical GM worker. In 2005, the CEO of Wal-Mart earned 900 times the pay of his average employee. In that year the wealth of the Wal-Mart founding family was estimated at about the same ($90-billion) as that of the bottom 40% of the US population, 120-million people, according to Tony Judi in the New York Review of Books reviewing Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy and Everyday Life by Robert B Reich (Knopf).

It was impossible not to feel stirred when Obama said, in reference to the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, “Hope is what led people to Selma … Hope is what led me today, with a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas, a story that could only happen in the US. Hope is the bedrock of our nation; our destiny will not be written for us, it will be written by us.”

And hopefully if Obama becomes president he will remember that with regard to other nations and change six generations of disastrous interfering US foreign policy. Nearly every truly dangerous person or organisation in the world today was backed or funded by the US or their supporters received military and other training from the US — they include or included Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Pakistan president General Pervez Musharraf, the Taliban, the Contras in Nicaragua, Renamo in Mozambique, Unita in Angola…

It was the Central Intelligence Agency that gave the information that saw Nelson Mandela arrested in 1961. In terms of US anti-terror legislation, key ANC leaders who have stood trial on sabotage or communism charges even today have to have special measures taken each time they want to visit that country — in terms of US law they are classified as terrorists and include Nelson Mandela, Tokyo Sexwale and Sydney Mufamadi.

Obama gave hope when he said: “Together we will change this country brick by brick, block by block … ordinary people can do extraordinary things … we are not red states [Republican] or blue states [Democrat], we are ready to believe again.”

In that message he showed what makes the great beloved through centuries: they preach a message that unifies, that sees neither class nor race, they inspire, they give people reason to believe not just in their leader, but in themselves and their nation.

It was Martin Luther King who said: “We must accept finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope.”

It was Nelson Mandela’s lesson for South Africans, and led to a miracle of reconciliation, which in turn galvanised the world and this nation to create the unprecedented prosperity of recent years — without a return to that sense of infinite hope South Africa will continue to cleave and ultimately to falter.

The two men who won at Iowa are not the men with the biggest war chests — Mick Huckabee, who won the Republican ticket, has puny resources compared with his party rival, Mitt Romney. Hillary Clinton has run the biggest fund-raising campaign of all. But those caucussed, tired of the machinations of George Bush and a war that was probably motivated by big business, went for a man who is giving them reason to believe.

The indicators of this “new world” so oft-predicted by Nelson Mandela in his speeches are everywhere: Argentina, one of the most chauvinistic nations on Earth, elected a woman; the trouncing of Thabo Mbeki at Polokwane was from voters who unequivocally said “you don’t see us, don’t hear us, have no empathy for our pain, hamba.”

The violence of the reaction to an African leader once again manipulating the polls, this time in Kenya, is showing that Africa’s time, too, has come. If anyone doubts the same could happen to South Africa, they should think again and remember that we have significantly more guns circulating in this society than Kenya. It’s a scenario we dare not risk.

Does that mean charges should be dropped against Jacob Zuma? Absolutely not. He has confidently said that if the courts find against him he will resign membership of the ANC. If he does not go to trial, he can never rid himself of serious charges. And too, if he does go to trial, he will have the opportunity to reveal precisely who benefited most from the arms deal — it’s a political cleansing South Africa needs to progress.

We should remember, too, the words of former South African ANC member of parliament Andrew Feinstein in his excellent book, After the Party (you cannot hope to understand present SA politics without reading it), in talking of the arms deal: “It is the president himself who is among the most manipulative and scheming politicians in the party, far more at home in smoke-filled rooms than in open discussion and debate.”

He quotes political commentator Andrew Stephen, who wrote: “[This] is the deceit of politics and the arrogance of power. Mediocre figures, given a little power and standing in the community, come to believe their own propaganda. They then ruthlessly depict anybody standing in their way as being part of the forces of darkness and evil. In the end they have no guiding morality and are driven solely by the pursuit of self-furtherance.”

Feinstein used those words with regard to Mbeki, but they apply to many leaders across the world, Bush, Mwai Kibaki in Kenya, the Taliban, the warlords and governors of Sudan, Robert Mugabe…

But there is hope and it comes not from leaders, but from citizens. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote more than 250 years ago in Democracy in America: “There can be no doubt that the moment when political rights are granted to a people who have till then been deprived of them is a time of crisis, a crisis which is often necessary but always dangerous.”

They’re words Kibaki in Kenya and every political grouping here needs need to reflect on. The point is this: democracy and the promises it brings, the rights it claims to enshrine, are a powerful narcotic. You cannot say to a people “you are entitled to”, “you have the right to”, and then turn around and say, well actually we can’t deliver because … especially after television cameras have shown the parade of expensive fashion and gleaming limousines at the opening of Parliament.

If politicians want to parade their personal success, they’d better ensure their constituents share in it too. De Tocqueville wrote: “Anarchy is almost always a consequence either of the tyranny or of the inability of democracy, but not of its impotence.”

In her death, Benazir Bhutto showed why she would not have made a good third-term president of Pakistan: anointing her husband as successor who contemptibly passed the buck to their 19-year-old son, who will be lucky if he survives the year, showed what a profoundly undemocratic leader she truly was. Her successor should have been a matter for democratic election within her party, but instead she clung to political dynasty, which globally is being rejected.

The next four-and– half weeks will be fascinating. Kenya will remain unstable unless Kibaki stands down, which is unlikely, or he agrees to a power-sharing government — something foreign governments will press him to do, but which he is unlikely to actively work with. This is a nation to watch for assassination attempts, either against Kibaki or his rival, Raila Odinga.

Jacob Zuma delivers his first report to the ANC and the nation on January 8 — it will be the most important speech of his life. On February 18 elections take place in Pakistan — any result there will essentially have little meaning, the country will continue to be unstable.

Super Tuesday traditionally takes place in New Hampshire where US primaries will take place next Tuesday, January 8. But this time the date that will determine much of the course of the US elections is February 3, ‘super duper Tuesday’, the biggest primary in US history where most delegates will be elected in New York, New Jersey, Georgia, Minnesota and California.

As De Tocqueville observed: “The Americans have this great advantage, that they attained democracy without the sufferings of a democratic revolution and that they were born equal instead of becoming so.”

Oh, say! Can you see by the dawn’s early light … o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave: hope has returned to politics.

(*What joy it would be to reverse my New Year’s prediction that Hillary Clinton wins the US presidential elections and to see Obama win)