Saturday, 8 November 2008

Barrack Obama's victory speech and South Africa

Barrack Obama’s victory speech and South Africa

The victory speech of Barrack Obama on 4 November opens up a new world. It is however very difficult to predict what the impact will be. Africa should be careful not to expect too much. The speech was a domestic affair looking at the failures of the Republicans and showing the way forward with the help of the Democrats’ policies. The omission of the role of civil society could make one worried but in the end what might matter more than anything else is that Obama has the gift of taking things to another level. His person and his life story may in the end achieve the almost incredible: proclaim the end of racism and move irrevocably beyond it.

Barrack Obama won the elections for president of the United States and will be inaugurated on 20 January 2009. His victory speech in Chicago in the evening of 4 November certainly was historic. 250 000 people did not know how to stop applauding him or shout ‘we want change’. A slender, rather tall man, he seemed quite relaxed watching the crowds and as far as could be seen, he did not use any manuscript for his 45 minute speech.

Most of what he said had been said before. He knew it all; and yet, the way he said it made the whole difference. His performance this evening was in itself proof of effective leadership, showing sensitivity to the various groups of the country and yet being in the lead.

It was a good mix of typical social democratic view points and the American[1] style, ‘you can make it to the top wherever you come from’. He wants a society that cares and that gives equal opportunities for all. At the same time he is another example of something quite different: it is not the social care that gives you success but your own personal hard work.

The promises abounded this evening and one shudders a bit when thinking of how literally impossible it will be to fulfill all these promises.

What is particularly difficult is to say at this stage what significance Barrack Obama will have for the rest of the world and South Africa. There are four points that I want to highlight here.

First, just because Obama’s father was a Kenyan it does not mean that he will be able to pay special attention to Africa’s woes. In fact it will be rather difficult for him to do that. He is an American in the first place and his job is to make USA function again, especially in economic terms. In my opinion he will never become as cynical as Keith Richburg, an outstanding American journalist with very similar background.[2] Richburg served as Africa correspondent for the Washington Post during the time of the Rwandan genocide and found his years in the relatively tolerable Nairobi quite trying and even horrifying. His conclusion when taking leave from Africa for another job in Hong Kong was that after all he was an American and not an African and he thanked God for it. As I say, Barrack Obama will certainly react differently, but Richburg’s example could serve as a warning to those who believe that Obama will have the aspirations or the ability to engage deeply with Africa.

Secondly, it struck me that at no time did he mention the role of civil society, voluntary organizations, NGOs and especially the churches. This is quite significant and one may ask, why did he leave that aspect to the Republicans? You could have a strong state and yet leave enough space for far reaching engagement from civil society, and the role of the churches in terms of fostering leadership and moral formation for the wider society is simply wrong to bypass. Typically, in South Africa any political leadership would acknowledge this kind of contribution.

Thirdly, he did not at any point mention developments in the wider world, outside the USA. This is typical American behaviour and gives the impression that this super state is itself all-embracing. My guess is that this was certainly not his intention; rather, this speech was there to please the voters and highlight what was good for them. Even his mention of Iraq, Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, etc., was done exclusively from the perspective of the USA.

Finally, and fourthly, at best Barrack Obama will be able to make an impact on a rather different level. At best he will move the US and the rest of us beyond the notion of race. He in a way has the power in his hands to eradicate this curse that has plagued us for so long. The greatness of Barrack Obama may well be that he cannot be located to a specific group. No particular group, not even the African Americans, could claim him in a total sense. He simply is a successful, good, gifted and highly effective US citizen and then also by inference a world (class) citizen.

The best I could think of in terms of Barrack Obama becoming president of the United States is that he will take us to another level, to a moral and perhaps ideological level. He certainly has this capacity of showing in some sense that the dream of human dignity and freedom can come true. The impossibility of keeping him within a specific race category will hopefully lead to the death knell of racism. It will always be there to rear its ugly head in human relationships, but perhaps, hopefully, on the more principled level, on the level of ideology, this concept may now be dead.

A lot more could be said about this, but it may be enough to say here that both Europe and Africa, especially South Africa, have a lot to learn in this respect. The USA may be hopelessly capitalistic, individualistic and simplistic, but at the same time the rest of the world should admire and take cognizance of the fact that this American society tries to integrate people wherever they come from, probably with the African Americans as the sad exception. Barrack Obama will see to it that this last vestige of structural injustice will hear the death knell before long. He embodies both sides (black and white) without taking sides and that is all what it takes.

[1] I here use ‘American’ in the limited and not quite correct sense of the United States of America only.

[2] See his book, Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa. Basic Books: New York, 1997.

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