The world claims kinship out of envy

2008-11-08 00:00

Those now delirious with unrealistic expectations over Barack Obama’s victory as the first African-American president of the United States will inevitably in time be disappointed. It is one thing to symbolise change, another to be its agent, especially in a society in the grip of powerful, conservative elites.

Nevertheless, the triumph of Obama was a champagne moment to rival Nelson Mandela’s election as South Africa’s first black democratic president. Or in a different context, to compare with the unalloyed delight that accompanied the election of the now despised Tony Blair.

How extraordinary that Obama, a man who is black, with foreign roots and whom 13% of the voters incorrectly believed is Muslim — with all the atavistic fears that such factors spark among the racist, xenophobic, religious nutters who comprise much of the United States electorate — got the biggest popular vote in a quarter of a century.

On the other hand, his predecessor, George W. Bush, was more unpopular than even Richard Nixon and presided over world economic meltdown, as well as disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is difficult to conceive of more disaffection with the Republicans.

But the gods were also generous. His opponent was a geriatric maverick whose late-life rush of blood to the head secured for him as a running mate a seal-clubbing fundamentalist with nary a spark of intelligence behind her designer specs.

John McCain’s obviously libidinal infatuation with Sarah Palin became more understandable when one saw Mrs McCain. She’s a scary 54-year-old Barbie with drum-tight nip-and-tuck features and improbably rigid breasts that look like intercontinental missiles seeking a small foreign country to bombard.

None of this is intended to detract from the giddy pleasure that the world outside the U.S. is taking in the election of Obama. Everyone is claiming ties: Kenyans, Japanese and Indonesians. The Irish, always keen to trace kinship to a U.S. president, will doubtless discover that there was an O’Bama clan who emigrated to the New World after the Potato Famine.

It is important for democracy everywhere that the U.S. is a land that the world admires, not hates and fears. Given the resistance that Obama will encounter in his domestic programme, his greatest contribution might well end up being the international rehabilitation of the U.S.

Obama’s victory ends an American era of black passivity and victimhood, but it also reminds one how poor governance remains on the African continent. A black man whom Kenyans claim as their son can be elected as Democratic president of the U.S. The black democrat who recently won the Kenyan election had to settle for a cobbled together power-sharing compromise.

In South Africa, reconciliation has been replaced with bile. There is little to admire, less to be proud of, when one looks at whom the African National Congress intends as South Africa’s next president.

Palin might be a joke; Jacob Zuma is simply a nightmare.

Nothing could be more different from the visionary inclusiveness of Obama than the inchoate ranting of the ANC Youth League and the SA Communist Party. There are two ways to lead a country: by appealing to voters’ worst instincts of spite and envy, and to seek to inspire a nation’s better instincts.

The Mbeki years have been so corrosive that it is easy to forget that for a while after the first democratic elections, South Africa briefly chose the latter course.

It promised to listen to its citizens, to deliver effective, ethical government and to forge a single nation. All pledges that have long been abandoned.

And that is why the world is enamoured with Obama. He reminds us how tawdry

most governments are, while reassuring us that visionary leadership can still sway an electorate.

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