Prince Mashele

'Proud of the Obama reality'

2008-11-17 13:01

Prince Mashele

More things are sure to be said as to what Barack Obama's electoral victory in the United States of America means for various peoples across the globe.

In our own country, we should definitely expect more black people to tell us how proud they are that their fellow black person is set to occupy the highest office of the most powerful state in the world.

We should also expect to hear some white people persuading us to believe that Obama is more white than black. Others will even remind us that he is neither black nor white, but coloured.

As the battle to own or downplay Obama's victory continues, the Chinese can now also imagine a future South Africa with a President who is neither Zulu, Xhosa nor Pedi, but someone with ancestral roots in the great land of Chairman Mao Zedong.

Anyone who wants us to believe that the West Wing of the Union Buildings shall never be occupied by an Indian-South African should first convince us that in 1776 white Americans did imagine that their White House would ever be occupied by a black man whose father was born in Kenya.

Proud of or bruised by the Obama reality, South Africans should resist the temptation to be gripped by the power of negative racial consciousness. Instead, we should ask: do our political parties offer us an Obama-like figure?

Those who might dismissively say "we cannot all be like America!" should pause and ask: doesn't our country deserve a leader or leaders who will inspire all our people to greater heights?

Yearning for leadership

Only the staunchest of denialists would contest the assertion that, after the embarrassing political storms we have recently experienced, our nation yearns for leadership that would make all of us proud. But do we see this kind of leadership among those currently offered by our political parties?

Or should we ask: are there no leaders in our society whom we know would make us proud? A more daunting question screams for an answer: are we merely helpless victims of a political system that imposes leaders we do not deserve? In this beautiful poem, "The Leader of the Crowd", WB Yeats writes:

    How can they know
    Truth flourishes where the student's lamp has shone,
    And there alone, that have no solitude?
    So the crowd come they care not what may come.
    They have loud music, hope every day renewed
    And heartier loves; that lamp is from the tomb.

In response to the question of whether among us there are leaders who would make us proud, some might borrow from Yeats and ask: "How can South Africans know?" But one could make bold and suggest that, unlike the crowd described by Yeats, our people know and care about "what may come."

Returning to Obama, Americans realised that "Truth flourishes where the student's lamp has shone". They demonstrated awareness of the limitations immanent in narrow racial considerations. They then looked for leadership qualities and voted for the one who deserves to be President rather than the other who claimed to be presidential.

Acclaimed Nigerian author Ben Okri last week reminded us: "A good president is the accomplishment of the people; a bad president is its shame. Elections are psychodramas in which the deepest aspects of the nation are played out in full view."

That the contest in our election next year will be fiercer is a fact already apparent. But when politicians begin to play out their psychodramas, we will, like Americans, have an opportunity to prove that, unlike Yeats' crowd, our hope and choices are not based on loud music.

By voting Obama, Americans have proved that it is not enough for one merely to be white or black, but that, if you are a presidential candidate, you have to embody modern America. Thus, Obama had the responsibility to prove that he understands the challenges facing America today, and he indeed presented a convincing vision on how to steer his nation to calmer waters.

Not enough

Like in America, it will not be enough for our presidential candidates merely to be black or white. We should demand that they prove to us that they understand the challenges that confront our country today, and prove that they have the best plan to take us forward.

As we approach the election next year, political parties will have to explain why we should believe that the leaders they present to us would make a good president, not a bad president who may become our nations' shame - to borrow Ben Okri's words.

More importantly, the electorate should press our parties hard enough for them to explain how, under the current unfavourable global economic situation, they will create jobs and fight poverty. The parties also have to prove to us that the leadership collectives they forward have what it takes to restore the pride that our nation once enjoyed domestically and in the community of nations.

So, what exactly are we being persuaded to do? We are called upon to give Obama a deeper South African meaning that transcends parochial and negative racial consciousness that might reduce him to such time-wasting claims as "Yes, he is ours", "No, he is not yours, but more like us!"

Let the search for meaning continue!

  • Mashele is Head of Crime, Justice and Politics Programme at the Institute for Security Studies. He writes in his personal capacity.

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