Yes, we (also) can

Like the victory speech of our founding president Nelson Mandela on May 2 1994, the acceptance speech of United States president elect Barack Obama caused a global celebration this week. It was one of those moments when a leader emerged as a symbol not only of a nation, but for all humanity. Obama is black, but that is only a part of his story.

Against the odds
His accession to what is still the world’s most powerful position tugs at the heart strings because he emerged against the odds. When his campaign started nearly two years ago he was a rank outsider in a race that has always been won by the establishment, be it the Republicans or the Democrats. A race won by men who happened to be white and usually rich. He was neither. Obama is young and black—as such he has become a figure of global inspiration and aspiration. From Kenya to Gaborone and the streets of Jozi, this much is clear. On a continent always told what it can’t do, his lineage means he has been adopted as a local son. His mantra “Yes we can” may have been crafted for the US but it must be adopted here too.

Black men
For black men, too often problematised and stigmatised, he offers a fresh model. In addition, Obama’s win was audacious and it gives hope in a polarised world. Obama is no peacenik, but he will pull American troops out of Iraq and promises an era of engagement rather than the brute force that has characterised the terms of the worst US president. That said, he will keep troops in Afghanistan and he is a supporter of the Zionist lobby in Washington. So expect little progress on Palestinian rights and settlement.

As Africans we should not be overly sentimental in claiming Obama either. He will not make it easier to get a US visa or a green card. When it was revealed this week that one of his distant Kenyan cousins was living in Boston illegally, he said “the law must take its course”.

An American president
Obama is American through and through and protectionist at that. He cut his community teeth while working with people devastated by the shutdown of steel mills; he has campaigned on a ticket that will make it tougher for American corporations to export jobs. On trade policy Obama is likely to bat for the US cotton farmers’ subsidies rather than the African farmers’ export potential. Obama is likely to be a domestic policy president with his vision focused on remedying the US’s exploitative and inhumane health system, then its education policy. His key task is to put the dream back into American identity. But there is a lot we can learn by learning to say “Yes we can”.

In a country in which we citizens are often told we can like it or lump it, Obama’s win is instructive. His campaign message promised a change from the mustiness and nastiness of American politics and struck a chord in a people grown unsure of their place in the world.

In South Africa we are no longer the rainbow nation of 1994 and are now unsure of what we are or what we can be. Next year promises the election of an archetypal populist as president and a slate of policy options best described as confused. Yet we are also poised on a precipice of hope, for what we’ve seen happen in the past month or two is the opening up of political choice as the ANC has splintered. Suddenly, people are finding their voices and breaking the stultifying homogeneity of movement politics.

This week the communication department’s director general, Lyndall Shope, broke with the ANC though, the liberation movement is in her blood and in that of her family. She has joined Shikota because her values no longer find a home in the ruling party. Others like her are leaving. Now in no way do we suggest that Shikota’s leaders are our Obamas, but his campaign, which came from left field, shows that a landscape can change fundamentally in less than two years and that it can change for the better.

His movement was successful because it was grounded in the 21st century, used the tools of technology and imagination—he fuelled youthful fires and tapped into the wallets of ordinary men and women to fund a marathon campaign. His was a non-racial campaign in the best sense of the word. The upshot was that his supporters felt included for the first time in generations; less like voting fodder and more like citizens. Now wouldn’t that be nice here too, where we have eschewed non-racialism for the vices of identity and tribal politics?

No more big men
In this week’s edition our Zimbabwean diary dad, Chief K Masimba Biriwasha, bathed his baby son Tadana for the first time as he watched the final hours of Obama’s victory. Africans claim the American president elect as their own, but he is the antithesis of the big man who has come to characterise public life on our continent. In Zimbabwe the big man is Robert Mugabe, the liberation leader who is now a global caricature of poor governance and corruption. If there is a lesson for the continent, it is that we must insist on earlier generational change and support nascent civil society so that we are not strangled by yesterday’s heroes and left feeling hopeless about government.

To know Obama’s story is not to see him as a messiah who must do things for Africa. If that is the prism through which we view him, disappointment will surely follow. The only lesson we can learn from him is to reimagine the art of the possible. From colonialism through to apartheid and the various excesses and wars for resources of the post-colonial period, Africans have always been fed messages of “No, you can’t”. Surely, the lesson of the week is that “Yes, we [also] can”.

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