Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come,
Whispering ‘it will be happier…’
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
As January 20 approaches and Donald Trump’s inauguration looms, there seems to be a global atmosphere of fear and loathing. The detritus of 2016 makes its way firmly into 2017. How, we ask could this even be remotely possible? Well, we are beginning to understand how it became possible and the analysis will go on for a while yet; the failures of liberal democracy, rising inequality, automation changing the job market in ways which have wiped whole industries off the economic map and the fear of the “other” so opportunistically fuelled in times like these.
Last week in his farewell address in Chicago, Barack Obama went back to where it all began for him and sought to draw a line under his presidency. Obama understands the arc of history and perhaps his place in it better than most, given his near-obsession with Abraham Lincoln and the “team of rivals” idea. In his recent discussion with American presidential historian, Doris Kearns-Goodwin, Obama showed his deep awareness of the judgment of history both regarding his accomplishments, what he did not get done, his failings and especially his temperament.
It is in this context that Obama came to Chicago. He spoke before an audience of the faithful. The night echoed so much of the atmosphere in Grant Park, Chicago in 2008 when the world shifted more than a bit as the first Black man became President of the United States. Yet eight years later, rather more jaded, maybe with a touch of cynicism and certainly looking a lot older than the fresh-faced senator he was then, Obama made the case for democracy and a theme he has returned to many times: a more perfect union.
As he spoke, it was clear that this was not only a message for the United States but also a global message for democrats everywhere feeling under siege while trying to do the hard work of building democratic societies. One could not help but feel keenly the parallels with South Africa even though our Constitution is but 20 years old and our democracy slightly older. We cannot say we have not been jaded too by the failings of our elected representatives to live up to our expectations and by the economic inequality that threatens our fragile social compact. Our governing ANC has seen own its internal democracy fail and deliver a President in Jacob Zuma who is incapable and has undermined the Constitution he swore to uphold and protect. Conflicts of interest and ethical breaches surround him and many close to him. We watch as the ANC confronts its own 2017 succession battle and ask how we can shift and change the debate beyond discussing personalities. South Africa’s activist heart was stirred into action last year more so than usual with student protests and organisations like SaveSA seeking to hold government, and more specifically Zuma himself, to account.
In a sense we understand Trump rather well here in the South. Anyone watching Trump’s first press conference would have found some of it straight out of the Zuma and ANC playbook. While Zuma is not as inherently narcissistic or as boorish as Trump, the similarities are uncanny sometimes; a failure to answer questions or be troubled by the inconvenience of facts, their views on women as objects and an instinct to shift blame. The conflicts of interest and the attempts to fob off any serious questions about them is something we in these parts are not unused to either. And then the ultimate favourite chorus of the weak leader: attacking the media for doing its job. Trump’s attack on CNN journalist Jim Acosta was revealing at best and at worst a direct attack on freedom of the press. The next four years will be a test of American institutions of democracy as much as anything. Where rules on for instance conflicts of interest are not as neatly codified, what happens when the leader simply ignores the convention and determines the rules do not apply to him? When the ConCourt found that President Zuma himself had breached the Constitution in the Nkandla matter we understood what it meant for a President simply to “go rogue”.
Part of the brilliance and indeed the utility of Obama’s speech was that idea that democracy is only as strong as citizens’ willingness to defend and protect the values of the constitution. That was captured crisply in these words: “Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power. We, the people, give it meaning.” In South Africa we grapple with this on a daily basis in a question we always ask ourselves as members of the Council for the Advancement of the SA Constitution (Casac), “if the Constitution was scrapped tomorrow, who would march in its defence?” or, more provocatively, since South Africa has such high levels of inequality and poverty is there a risk that citizens see the Constitution as merely a piece of paper and nothing more? They are salient questions for those interested in pursuing rights and protecting constitutional democracy as the only means of transforming society.
Along with uncertainty it seems also that we are witnessing the death of decency of a pretty grand scale. As Chuck Todd said in his book Stranger, which is a detailed analysis of the Obama years, Obama may have had many faults but he will remain one of the most decent men to ever occupy the Oval Office. As the tawdry Trump takes office, he arrives as someone whose narcissism may well lead to his eventual impeachment. One of the most moving parts of Obama’s speech was his tribute to his wife: “Michelle LaVaughan Robinson, girl of the Southside.” We were moved because it was real, decent and without pretence. It was also a fitting tribute to the substantial Michelle Obama who has always sought to “go high” even against the cruellest personal abuse.
And so as Obama departs the stage and as his presidency sits sandwiched between George W Bush and Trump’s, history may well judge him more kindly. In the meantime, the world will have to become used to the boorish imposter, Donald Trump. Obama was exhorting us all to believe in the activism that has its roots in the “idea whispered” like Tennyson’s own hopeful whisper. Yet, what will be rung in on January 20 will be the false not the true and its consequences will reverberate across the world.
But democracy is not a “once off” sprint, it is a marathon: “If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organising. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up. Dive in. Stay at it.”
Obama thus put the word out to all democracy activists around the world: nothing is guaranteed, no right is won without struggle and we had best remain vigilant and organise. This will be a crunch year for South Africa, so best we lace up our boots as well. We have no option but to stay at it. DM