Democracy in action

2009-01-22 00:00

All eyes were on Washington this week for the inauguration of President Barack Obama. For South Africans, as Nelson Mandela has observed, it contained echoes of his inauguration as president after this country’s first democratic election in 1994. This was a similar historic crossroad for the United States as an African-American took the oath of office for the first time in its long history.

The ceremony, although full of emotion amid a massive crowd, was remarkably restrained in many ways. This was due to its intrinsic nature and also because of the critical state in which the American nation finds itself. Dignity without pomposity was the hallmark. It was essentially a homespun occasion without fanfare around the presence of international heavyweights. There was a graciousness of bearing between George W. Bush, the outgoing president, and his young successor. It was possibly the most security-conscious of any public event ever in the U.S., yet there was no obvious sign of a police presence anywhere.

In this atmosphere of restrained excitement Obama delivered a short and profound speech in which he did not mince his words, quoting the first president, George Washington, about the need to face courageously “this winter of our hardship”. He warned that the economic crisis and other challenges on the domestic and international fronts were serious and would not be solved quickly. Yet they would be met with resolve and hard work together. He aims to renew the standing of the U.S. as a partner, not a unilateralist, in the international arena, being firm about defending its way of life against threat, yet intent on befriending other nations on a basis of mutual interest and respect. Even corrupt dictators who cling to power can expect a friendly hand “if you are willing to unclench your fist”. Robert Mugabe and others should take note.

In this ceremony the hallmarks of democracy were revealed at their best. The new president seemed at pains to show that democracy was being celebrated rather than any particular hero within it. This augurs well both for the U.S. and for the world at large.

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