Quote of the week

It seems that the more places I see and experience, the bigger I realize the world to be. The more I become aware of, the more I realize how relatively little I know of it, how many places I have still to go, how much more there is to learn.

Travel changes you. As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life — and travel — leaves marks on you.

The journey is part of the experience — an expression of the seriousness of one’s intent. One doesn’t take the A train to Mecca.

Anthony Bordain
18 January 2009

Barack Obama = America = patriotism?

I visited Kansas City this weekend. I did not see Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, but everywhere I went the name Barack Obama was on people’s lips – even in Kansas, one of the most conservative states in the US. On TV talkshows, in Diners over breakfast, on the news, in the New York Times and on National Public Radio, the excitement about the inauguration of Obama as 44th President of the United States took centre stage.

Well, I did have to turn the dial of my car radio past the country and western music (“the bank is coming for my house/ and my wife is gone, gone, gone…”), past charlatan preachers who told me that Jesus would save me if I only sent them a few dollars (because the scriptures said so), and Rush Limbaugh type talkshow hosts complaining about the “communist” Obama taking over while seemingly patriotic Americans were stupid enough to cheer him on.

What’s interesting from a South African point of view, is that all this excitement about Obama’s inauguration is wrapped up in a weird (but, dare I say, wonderfully uplifting) kind of non-partisan patriotism. Even Tiffany’s – the company that sells very expensive jewelery to rich people who probably voted in droves for John McCain – had an advertisement today in the New York Times  of a bejewelled American flag to celebrate the inauguration. (How tacky. How American. How wonderful.)

Now, I am one of those people who think that patriotism (like “national security”) is the last refuge of scoundrels. Yet, there is something touching about a nation so caught up in the historic moment that most of its citizens would set aside their personal politics to revel in the moment.

It feels a bit like the days after the 1994 election that led up to the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as President of South Africa. Suddenly it was cool to wave the (then new) South African flag. Not a day went by in those first weeks and months of our shining new democracy that I did not choke up with the emotion of this momentuous change.

Sadly (but probably inevitably) those days are long gone. I am not going to cry when Jacob Zuma is inaugurated as our fourth President later this year – unless I shed tears of anger and worry. Maybe this means South Africa has become a more normal society. After all, the present mania in the USA stems from the fact that a black man was elected President – something that did not seem possible in the abnormal world of American racialised politics, bedevilled by a history of Slavery and abominal discrimination.

I am sure some ANC supporters would say the fact that some of us (black and white) fellow South Africans will not get emotional when we see Jacob Zuma doing a little Umshini wam dance at his inauguration, just goes to show that we are evil, partisan, racist colonialists who hate Zuma because he has more than one wife and because we think he is either very stupid or very blind because after all these years he still can’t find his machine gun. 

But I am not sure that would be fair. After all, Barack Obama’s financial advisor is not spending 15 years in jail for bribing him and for soliciting a bribe on his behalf. Barack Obama has not been charged (but acquitted) of rape. Barack Obama does not brazenly change his political message depending on who he talks to. (Although he has sometimes changed his positions – he has just been far more clever and agile at doing it.) Barack Obama and his surrogates have not threatened judges or called them names. Barack Obama does not mention that absurd beast called “the national democratic revolution”.

And, let’s face it, Barack Obama can give brilliant speeches – yes he can – while Zuma is about as inspiring as a slightly drugged dentist talking about false teeth when he gives a speech.

Why is it that – after Mandela, to whom Obama has been repeatedly compared on TV here – we have elected such uninspiring leaders? Listening to Thabo Mbeki speak was a bit like watching black paint dry in a darkened room. And when Zuma is not singing and dancing, but reading a prepared speech, he makes Mbeki seem exciting and inspiring in comparison.

Perhaps it is because we do not elect our leaders directly that we have ended up with such duds. (In the UK, where the party elects leaders as well, they had John Major, Margareth Thatcher and now Gorden – “funny-slack-mouth” – Brown.) A few thousand ANC hacks elect our leader every five years (or in the case of Mbeki, we do not really know who elected him because he was made ANC leader in a backroom deal).

Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I think the jury is out on the answer to that question. Uninspiring leaders can be a good thing because that means we might avoid the cult of personality that might tempt leaders to overstay their welcome. If Mbeki was truly inspiring he would have been re-elected at Polokwane en we would have been stuck with that disaster of a man. That is why I am not sure I like Cope’s proposal for the direct election of our President.

But I do miss having a leader I can be proud. I miss a leader that might inspire us to do a bit more than avoid time in jail, that will inspire us to do more than try and make money to drive bigger cars and get niftier cell phones. But maybe it is a small price to pay – having boring or corrupt leaders – in order to prevent our leaders from becoming such cult figures that they will be tempted to hang around until they have truly ruined the country.

So on Tuesday I will probably get all emotional, and for a few hours I will yearn for our own Barack Obama to emerge in South Africa. Then I will thank my lucky stars that I live in a country where our leaders are so obviously flawed that we can laugh at them, and ridicule them, and not take them that seriously at all.

Because as long as we continue laughing at them, we will not fear them. And as long as we do not fear our leaders, we will never become another Zimbabwe, another apartheid South Africa, or another Nazi Germany. 

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