‘We had one of those’

Like many, I was no less elated and charmed by the inauguration of Barack Obama than by that of our founding president Nelson Mandela 16 years ago. It had the same elements of an individual and by extension, his people, overcoming history and taking centre stage in a troubled world.

It offered hope and an expanded sense of what humanity could achieve when love, intellect, commitment and steely determination and ambition are combined in glorious cocktail. Obama is an every-son, claimed in corners from Indonesia to Ireland, from Kenya to South Africa, where, in Sandton, I joined a group of Americans and locals to watch teary-eyed as he took the oath.

Is it my imagination or have we, compatriots, felt a little wistful during the various Obama moments we have witnessed in the past few months?

“We had one of those,” I hear the whisper. We basked then, as the US does now with its new president, in Mandela’s glory; we bloomed in the hope he insisted upon in our shattered national soul.

Hope is an audacious thing now, as it was then. Now, as then, the “indicators of crisis” are all around us, but still there must be the audacity of hope, as Obama shows in his political biography.

On Tuesday night I was wistful because we stand on the cusp of an era of lesser leadership just as the US inherits a fine African grandson who can end its era of terror, a time when it betrayed its founding values. I fear we risk betraying our founding ideals with full-frontal attacks on the courts and the diminution before our very eyes of what made the ANC great as it festers in a miasma of factionalism and ambition. It has become mediocre, its sun setting just before the party’s 100th birthday. And there is nothing to replace it, leaving us in a risky interregnum.

Yet, we will not understand 2009 without recognising in the party’s president, Jacob Zuma, an audacity of hope too. He may be derided by the chattering classes (like me) but in plain-talking, poverty-stricken South Africa, he offers a fairer future.

His journeys through the courts, from the lowest to the very apex, tell the story of someone who believes in his innocence though the evidence against him is mountain high. He believes in his destiny as a man of the people and, by all accounts, he is loved because he is the opposite of the intellectual president. In Moe Shaik’s words, he is an “organic intellectual”.

Ask his fans and the adjective used is always “accessible” — he makes people feel heard. He opens up space — look how happy the left allies of the ruling party are now. Instead of the snarling reds we’ve become used to through the era of Thabo Mbeki they are tickled pink by a jovial Jacob.

There is value in this and, like many, I spent 2008 trying to understand the man who will be our president. To be honest, I have failed.

On Tuesday Obama could have taken the easy way out and given a speech to soothe his nation’s anxious soul. Instead, he started with the indicators of crisis and then proceeded to deal with every bogey he faces.

I’ve never seen JZ doing that; he believes we must “debate” everything that challenges him and then he jives to make us feel good. It has a placebo effect and he uses it to dull fears of the complex challenges of the moment.

Listen to an interview with him and then try to analyse what he has said beyond the right-wing sound-bites — there is nothing there. A loud nothing. As citizens, we do not know how he plans to deal with our contradictory economy, which grows as poverty deepens — now that it is contracting, poverty rates will increase; what he will do about the culture of impunity and a disabling crime rate; about a schooling system that has managed to become worse than Bantu education.

Each time I open the papers it is to read of yet another attempt by the ANC to manage its president: he must not be allowed off-script, so the message is now controlled by a phalanx of spin-doctors; our competent Housing Minister Lindiwe Sisulu now heads a team to cure the political migraine of how to deal with a president who must be both in court and on the hustings.

It is an impossible task and we will surely emerge a lesser nation from the legal and political contortions such a challenge will demand.

What, I wonder, has become of the audacity of our hope? Could it possibly be true that nations get the leaders they deserve?

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