Where were you on November 4th, 2008?
I was at a 24-hour diner in Cape Town, South Africa, a little out of it because it was 3 AM (way past my bedtime, just for the record) and polls were still closing back in the States. We knew the results wouldn’t be announced for hours, but we were in it for the long haul. Yes, I had a final exam at noon that I would be taking without much studying and after zero sleep, but some things are just worth the sacrifice. And when the news flashed across the screen a little after 6 AM that America had just elected its first African-American President, I dropped down to the floor praising God, and sobbing like a baby.
Being abroad for Obama’s election was bittersweet. I watched Jesse Jackson crying in the crowd in Chicago from thousands of miles away, and a part of me wanted to hop on the next flight home, just to run around in the streets and act crazy. (It was after 7 AM when we left the diner, and aside from a few honks we received on the walk home, most of Cape Town was going about its business, headed to work.) But being across the world at this pivotal moment made me realize the impact his election has across the globe, and particularly in South Africa, a country best known for its tumultuous history of racial conflict.
True, the country has only been free from apartheid for 15 years, but the level of physical segregation and economic disparity are shocking by any standard. Life in the townships, where most Blacks and Coloureds are relegated, is a life of poverty and little opportunity, especially with regard to education. It’s often hard to see change coming; in one city, I saw a segregated toilet facility at a gas station. At least 20 women were in line waiting for the one toilet for Blacks, yet the Whites Only toilet remained locked and unoccupied, guarded by a Black employee. When I asked her how this could possibly exist, she told me that Blacks deserve this treatment because “we’re dirty and we don’t know how to flush.” I wanted to tell her that she was beautiful, and just as good as anybody else, but all I could do was walk away in shock. Black South Africans may be in charge of the government, but White South Africans control the two most important things: the money, and the minds of a people who have been taught to think of themselves as an inferior race.
Still, South Africans have an incredible sense of optimism and hope. This became especially clear to me after Obama was elected. As soon as anyone heard my American accent after November 4th, they would yell “OBAMA!” with a huge smile and maybe even a hug! (To put this in context, before November 4th most of us Americans would try to go unnoticed, for fear of evoking dirty looks, or an argument about Bush’s policies or Iraq.) Everywhere, people wore Obama buttons and plastered his face on everything from road signs to dumpsters.
For a while, I wondered where all this enthusiasm came from. I had heard reasons from many South African Obama supporters: they felt pride in his African heritage, they thought he could improve the economy and end the war, and they hoped for an increase in aid to Africa. But I think the true reason is less cut-and-dry. For Black South Africans, whose lives have been characterized in many ways by inequality and discrimination, America’s willingness to elect Barack Obama symbolizes a breaking of chains. Yes, South Africa’s presidents have been Black since apartheid was defeated, but these presidents have never fully represented the struggle of the common South African. The African National Congress (ANC), the ruling party, essentially chooses their candidate, who is then rubber-stamped by the Black majority in a popular vote. Whites used to have the power, now Blacks have the power, and that’s just the way it is. Barack Obama, in contrast, mobilized countless citizens in a campaign that used grassroots organizing in an unprecedented way to gain support from Americans of every race and ethnicity. Obama’s mixed heritage, then, stands as a symbol of his ability to truly bridge the race gap that runs even more deeply through South African society than here in America.
So, why are South Africans so excited about Obama? Because, deep in their hearts, they are yearning for their own campaign of change, unity, and hope. Black presidents in South Africa have brought an end to legal racial segregation, but have failed to lift the overwhelming majority of South Africans out of dire poverty. What many South Africans are looking for is a candidate who won’t win the Black vote because he’s Black, or the White vote because he’s White, but a candidate whose vision of a better country inspires everyday citizens across color lines. That’s what Obama has done, and that’s what South Africa desperately needs to begin to heal the racial wounds of the past.
Ellie Gunderson is a student activist at Georgetown University who is studying this semester at the University of Cape Town.
Tagged: South Africa