Lessons from Obama

2008-11-18 00:00

In Kenya, where Barack Obama’s father and grandfather were born into the minority Luo ethnic group, there is a joke doing the rounds: it is said that a Luo has a much better chance of becoming the president of the United States than of Kenya.

The joke puts a light spin on a profound observation. In closed patronage-based societies, it is unheard of for people outside the ruling cabal’s network of patronage — whether that network is connected by race or ethnicity or religion or class — to be given the opportunity to lead their countries.

That is why I found it deeply ironic that Robert Mugabe congratulated Obama on his win.

Mugabe single-handedly turned his country into a closed, patronage-based society by eroding the rights of minority Ndebele speakers and later majority Shona speakers, by abusing state power for personal gain, by denying opportunities to all those outside his inner circle and by refusing to concede defeat at the polls.

The Zimbabwean dictator interpreted Obama’s victory through a racial prism; he saw it as an affirmation of racial identity. In fact, it was the exact opposite. It was the triumph of the open-opportunity-based society that enabled Obama to transcend racial barriers.

Throughout his life Obama has recognised and used the opportunities open to him in the United States. He made it to the White House because he grew up in a society that is the antithesis of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

This is the lesson that the African National Congress (ANC) president Jacob Zuma should also take to heart when he hails Obama’s victory. But judging from the statements emanating from Zuma himself, as well as his family and the ANC, it seems as though the real insights escape them. They are still bound by the shackles of race and see everything through a racial lens. They see Obama’s victory as a racial victory.

They must understand that Obama’s win did not symbolise the victory of any racial group. It was a triumph of a society which strives to ensure that all citizens have the opportunities they need to take responsibility for their lives, irrespective of the circumstances of their birth, and become the best they can be.

This is the vision that animates the Democratic Alliance (DA). We call it the open opportunity-based society for all. It stands in direct contrast with the ANC’s philosophy of a closed, patronage-based society for some.

Key features of the ANC’s policy approach (including “cadre deployment” and “representivity”) make the emergence of an

Obama extremely difficult, if not impossible. That is why it is so ironic that the ANC has claimed Obama’s victory as its own.

In his bid to become U.S. president, Obama had to take on the Washington elite and the power-brokers in his own party. As he remarked so eloquently during his acceptance speech, he was never the likeliest candidate for president. He did not start with much money or many endorsements.

And his campaign was “not hatched in the halls of Washington”; it began “in the backyards of Des Moines and the living rooms of Concord and the front porches of Charleston”.

This would not have happened 20 (or even 10) years ago, because then the U.S. was still trapped in the politics of race. Obama’s victory is such a triumph for the world precisely because it represents the transcendence of race, not the mobilisation of race in determining political choice.

It has taken the U.S. 221 years to reach that point. The good thing about being an emerging democracy is that we can learn from those who have gone before us.

We must make this transition far more quickly. It is possible.

The realignment of politics that has been under way in South Africa since the local elections of 2006, opens the door to new choices and new forms of government (particularly coalitions).

This phase is crucial in the process of overcoming the obsolete race-based political formations of the past, as we seek to bring together people on the basis of shared values, principles and policies.

The relaunch of the DA at Constitution Hill this past weekend reflects our belief that this is possible. Our relaunch is the product of a long period of self-reflection and internal renewal driven by our conviction that South Africa will succeed in becoming a stable, viable democracy.

This transition actually started in 2006, when we won several municipalities, including the city of Cape Town. Its trajectory will continue in the 2009 provincial and national elections, and snowball in the local government elections two years later, in 2011. By the time the 2014 national election dawns, the political terrain will be fundamentally realigned, opening exciting possibilities for issue-based rather than race-based voting.

The lessons of Obama’s success have great relevance for this exciting new phase of South Africa’s political history, as the landscape realigns and parties begin to reconfigure on the basis of values, principles and policies.

Obama rallied the U.S. with his slogan “Yes, we can”. So can we. In fact, we must and we will.

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