Change may have been a long time coming, but when it did – wow! Sometimes revolutions come with pain, sometimes with joy. From today this is a new world and we all have to change the way we think and what we do.

The first decade or two of any millennium is a time of revolutionary change. In the 20th century it included the Boer War, the founding of the African National Congress, a devastating flu that killed 20 million, it saw a five-year-long cruel drought here and in other parts of the world that accelerated the start of the world’s first Great Depression . It also saw the October revolution in Russia.

Two earth shaking events have happened in the early part of the 21st century, both in the United States of America. The first was the attack on the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and the tragic plane crash of a United Airlines flight in a field in Pennsylvania on September 11 2001. President George W Bush then managed to turn a global outpouring of love and support for the United States into bitterness, contempt and hatred by the invasion of Iraq and the escalation of hostilities in Afghanistan (a country where no invader has succeeded in 2 000 years).

On September 11 2001, Irish poet Seamus Heaney was researching Horace in the library at Harvard when the terrorist attacks occurred. He penned this poem, abridged here, but which has haunting prescience today as the earth shakes once again:

Anything can happen. You know how Jupiter
Will mostly wait for clouds to gather head
Before he hurls the lightning? Well, just now
He galloped his thunder-cart and his horses

Across a clear blue sky. It shook the earth …
Anything can happen, the tallest things

Be overturned, those in high places daunted,
Those overlooked regarded.

And that is what this election has been about; ‘those overlooked’ whether women, young people or African Americans have claimed back their future. They demand to be regarded.

The United States is the new rainbow nation. When Americans queued in lines that snaked around corners and over fields, eerily reminiscent of South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994, you had to be blind or stupid not to realise change was here.

In 1994, South Africa was the nation of hope, politicians promised “a better life for all.” That promise was not kept. As a very much better life for a few emerged, they abandoned responsibility for the majority. Yesterday a friend went to collect her maternity benefit from the Unemployment Insurance Offices at the Department of Labour in Cape Town and was confronted by arrogant officials who screamed at those who entered – employees take their cue from their bosses and leaders; and voters kick out those who have too often kicked them about.

At Polokwane less than a year ago it seemed certain that Jacob Zuma would be the next president of South Africa. That is no longer certain. He has made critical errors. When Terror Lekota began dissenting, party bosses arrogantly turfed him out. It was another US president, Lyndon B Johnson, who said it was better to have dissenters “pissing inside the tent, than outside the tent”. Zuma’s lackeys ignored that wisdom and ensured a break-away party would gain momentum.

Zuma’s people challenged despised former president Thabo Mbeki to say where his loyalties stood; he said he would campaign for Zuma. At this stage in South Africa to have Mbeki campaigning for a party is the kiss of death.

Neither Zuma nor Shikota have learnt the lessons of Obama – the person who tries to embrace his enemies, who does not engage in petty disputes, who does not ridicule or humiliate – that is the leader people will follow.

Obama’s lesson too is that race is yesterday’s whinge. Blame has lost its power. Obama campaigned not as an African American, not as a man, he campaigned as an American. We never heard him once say, he is “a loyal cadre of the Democratic Party”.

He never once said, “I am a disciplined member of the Democrats”, yet he ran the most disciplined campaign in modern US history.

His loyalty is not to a party, it is to the people of the United States, regardless of their party affiliation or individual bias. He believes in his nation, and so the people of that nation believe in him.

Obama has shown us something else that is critical: sometimes it is not experience that counts, it is inexperience. The junior Senator from Illinois was not tainted by old hands saying “this is the way it has always been done and so must be done” – he created a revolution in doing it his way. He led a team, not a choir of sycophants.

When Thabo Mbeki was first elected the media and business praised his intellect, but as the Wizard of Oz teaches us, a head without a heart is of little value. Obama has spent enough American Christmases watching reruns of the Wizard of Oz to know that heart creates great leaders, courage is hard to obtain but advance or change is impossible without it, and spirit is infectious. Hope is the greatest human narcotic alongside its eternal companion, love.

And so Barack Hussein Obama, born of mixed parents, who has more experience of living in different parts of the world than any US president before him, who has been involved more directly in raising and caring for his children than any US president before him; Barack Hussein Obama who refused to stoop to the level of his detractors, who stood tall, proud and ran a dignified, heartfelt campaign, who refused to be party to old slogans, ancient prejudices and petty disputes has become the Wizard of All of Us.

Barack Hussein Obama, who, when he visited South Africa in August 2006, could not get president Thabo Mbeki’s office or even Nelson Mandela’s office to return his calls and even the failure of South African politicians to come to victory celebrations with the US consulate at the Hyatt today, showed they have no idea of how seismically the world has shifted: Barack Hussein Obama has shown us that Yes We Can.

In South Africa we need to believe that again and do it again – and this time not let up on the pressure after new promise-pledgers come to power.


  • Charlene Smith is a multi-award-winning journalist, author and media consultant. She has had 14 books published, one of which was shortlisted for an Alan Paton award. Television documentaries for which she has worked have also won awards. She has worked as a broadcast journalist and radio-station manager. Smith's areas of expertise are politics, economics, women's and children's issues and HIV. She lives and works in Cambridge, USA.


Charlene Smith

Charlene Smith is a multi-award-winning journalist, author and media consultant. She has had 14 books published, one of which was shortlisted for an Alan Paton award. Television documentaries for which...

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