Dispatch November 2008


Is the new American president Africa’s long-awaited superhero?
The front page of South Africa's Mail & Guardian newspaper

On the evening of the election, as I was watching the returns come in at an Obama election party, I met a man who was more informed about the election than anyone I'd met in the past twenty-one long months. CNN blared over the bar's loudspeaker. Images of Obama in various thoughtful poses decorated the walls and the chests of more than half the crowd. The partygoers had come to drink, whether in celebration or commiseration—consequences for work the next day be damned.  Moving toward the back of the bar, I shared a counter with a short black man dressed in a white button-down shirt and dress pants, wearing rimmed glasses that gave his round face an intellectual air.   "Do you think Obama's going to take Virginia?"  he asked. We spoke for a minute about the possibility.  "I'll be honest with you,” he said,  “when I look at the polls there, I start to think it might actually be possible—it looks good, but you never know." 

It was the kind of hopeful but guarded statement heard across America on Tuesday night, but this time, the speaker was a Soweto-born South African man who has never been to the United States. We were speaking at 3 in the morning in a bar in Johannesburg, South Africa, where an equal mix of Americans and South Africans had turned out to see—they hoped—the first black man elected president of the United States.  

Not surprisingly, South Africa’s apartheid past ripples through black South Africans’ reactions to Obama.  The prospect of America electing a black president felt impossible.   “With us and how we relate to white people here in South Africa, many people tried to project that onto the States,” said Shoni Tshisikuk, my acquaintance from the election night party, when I spoke with him again two days later.  “They said, “Wait a minute, we know white people in this country.  We don’t think that given a chance they’d ever elect a black person. So we don’t think that white people in the U.S. would ever be willing to put a black person into power, into the ultimate office.”

So what does it mean to black South Africans that America did just that? “For us, it feels like maybe this could be ushering in a new world, where people will pause and wait and listen to what you have to say before they pass judgment,” Tshisikuk said. “To some degree it has made it possible for people to believe.  It creates that sense of possibility.”

Some South Africans said their feeling upon hearing the news was not unlike what they had felt in the early '90s when Nelson Mandela was released from prison and was elected South Africa’s president.  “Those are moments that allow you to forget about the problems and think about certain possibilities that for a long time we never allowed ourselves to think,” Tshisikuk said. “You can suspend everything else and you live in a moment where everything is possible.”

The question is, what kinds of changes might Obama’s election herald for Africa? Policy differences between McCain and Obama regarding Africa were in fact few and far between, and Obama’s ability to launch any sort of massive program targeting Africa, as President George W. Bush did with his AIDS relief program (PEPFAR), are diminishing by the day as the American financial situation declines.  Yet when I asked South Africans this week whether Obama would do more for Africa than other presidents, most nodded their heads and said, “I think he will. I think he will. After all, he is African!”

From the archives:

"How to Kill a Country"
Turning a breadbasket into a basket case in ten easy steps—the Robert Mugabe way. By Samantha Power

Zimbabweans  living in South Africa told me that their hope is that Obama will get rid of Robert Mugabe, the freedom fighter-turned dictator who has spent his twenty-eight years in power systemically destroying the country and its people.  This is where Obama’s African heritage comes in. “I think maybe [Obama] will put Mugabe out,” said Lucky Khupe, a Zimbabwean security guard at the guesthouse where I was staying. “Because he’s African, he can bring more changes.” When I asked Khupe why, his answer surprised me.   In the course of denying charges of human rights violations and corruption, Mugabe has repeatedly accused the West of racism and neo-colonialism. “If a white person took it to Mugabe, he’d be shouting and everything,” Khupe said. “If a black person took it to Mugabe, it may be better.”

Presented by

Elizabeth Shelburne

Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne is a writer based in Boston.

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