Putting hand on heart for your country
‘May God bless America” – these are the words that United States President Barack Obama invariably ends his speeches with. It is an emotive appeal to the American conscience to say that “whatever I am doing, rightly or wrongly, I do it with your best interests at heart”.
When you love politics as much as I do and visit a foreign country, you cannot help but notice these moments and compare the political terrain to that in your own country.
The differences between the US and South Africa are vast and stark, but the patriotism you experience in the US is particularly striking. I felt it keenly when former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice gave a lecture at Duke University in North Carolina, where I spent a few weeks recently.
Her lecture was about how the Arab Spring, the global economic crisis and the events of 9/11 had fundamentally affected global politics, changed its dynamics and altered how the US related to itself and the rest of the world. She spoke about how, as the US was trying to imprint democracy around the globe, some of its “core strengths” were under assault. These included its military power, economic prowess and cultural imperialism.
If you, like me, have always detested imperialism, the West, capitalism and the structure of the UN Security Council, which allows a few powerful countries to dictate the fate of others, you could dismiss her comments as confirmation of the jingoism and paternalistic attitude of the US towards the rest of the world.
“Values” and beliefs
But it was at least enlightening about how the US views itself and how its leaders rally its citizens around these “values” and beliefs.
I ask myself: What do we as South Africans citizens rally around? What is our passion? What issues make us put our hands on our hearts and vow to defend the republic with all we have? Or are we just not that kind of people?
When I spent a week in Israel two years ago, my overwhelming sense was that what underlies their politics is the issue of security. It is safety first. There are, of course, differences in how you ensure this safety: it could either be by being a bully and bombing your neighbours and assassinating their leaders and the leaders of the Palestinians, or by winning your neighbours over by persuasion, pursuing a peace agreement with the Palestinians and assuring everyone that your military might is not for aggression but for protection.
The point is that Israeli politicians know that in the space in which they operate, the guarantee of the safety of Israelis is paramount and everything else follows. This is obviously a much more contested space where you do not find the same kind of consensus that you find in the US.
It is because the Palestinians are still fighting for their liberation and the return of their land, which the Israelis also view as theirs. And the Palestinians in Gaza and in the West Bank are driven on a daily basis by a hunger and desire to fight for their state. Every politician in their
midst has to establish his liberation credentials first and all the rest follows.
It is either the militant, hard-core way of Hamas, or it is the gentler hand of the Palestinian Authority.
This is murky territory, I know. But the truth is that you visit these places and you discover in essence the reasons for their existence.
What about us? It was much easier pre-1994 when we knew what we were fighting for. But what is our rallying point now? If we do not even have consensus about the Constitution – with some traditionalists asking that we amend it to deal with gay rights, some saying that it is too soft on crime and others asking that we review the role of the Constitutional Court – you have to wonder what we are left with.
Some profess that poverty and inequality are the biggest issues of our time and only those who speak this language are able to tap into the innermost psyche of most South Africans. But what about job creation? Or corruption, or crime?
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