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!”

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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.”

“I think a lot of people would listen more to Barack Obama because of his connection with the continent,” said Simeon Mawanza, a Zimbabwean human rights activist who now lives in London and was visiting South Africa while I was there. “I hope especially the politicians in Zimbabwe would have a moment of reflection on what this means … if you have a black man being elected President of the United States, coming from a minority group, it might change the kind of race rhetoric that we have seen, particularly in Zimbabwe.”

As for native South Africans, it is impossible not to hear the hope in their voices as they talk about the possibility of changing their own system. This election occurred in the midst of massive political turmoil. After fourteen years in power, with a mixed record of success, South Africa’s governing party, the African National Congress, is facing an internal revolt. The party kicked out President Thabo Mbeki in a move that is widely viewed as an attempt to make room for party leader Jacob Zuma in next year’s elections.  Zuma is a popular yet controversial figure in South Africa, having been fired as deputy president in connection with an arms deal, cleared of a rape charge in 2005 and charged twice with corruption. (The corruption case has been dismissed twice, although on procedural grounds that do not preclude the possibility that he may be re-charged.)  Several key party members have split off to form a new party, informally called Congress of the People, which has been gaining ground and popularity.

“There’s never been a party that is good enough for me to vote for,” said Benjamin Gillies, a South African restaurant owner who told me he’s never voted. “This new party for me has created a formidable opposition,” he said, “that can take the ANC on and protect the constitution.” For the first time, Gillies says, he sees a future.   “Obama made it,” he said, thinking ahead to South Africa’s election.  “It’s going to be in the back of my mind. It can work exactly the same.”

The newspapers, too, are editorializing about hope these days. The editorial board of South Africa’s Mail & Guardian, for example, articulated for their readers—in words that seem to capture what many are now feeling—just what an Obama presidency might augur for Africa:

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.”