SA and the US of A

The recent visit of President Obama, and now this week’s celebration of 4 July, has again prompted a focus in South Africa on all things American.  Not that it needs much prompting: American brands, American music and American films are so present that we don’t even notice after all a while that they are imports.

Obama is of course not alone in travelling the long distance – 14 hours even if you fly non-stop! – across the Atlantic and across the Equator.  Last year, the 327,000 American overseas visitors to South Africa out-numbered all others except Brits.  But perhaps it is fitting that the country which was the first to create a modern-style rights-based constitutional republic should take a keen interest in our more recent version.

It is 19 years since South Africans threw off the yoke of oppression; the comparable point in American history would be 1795 and there are some intriguing similarities.  80% of Americans then were working on farms and living in one-room cabins; those living in cities were mostly crammed into boarding hostels and insalubrious apartment buildings.  A political row was caused by an attempt to raise money for road-building (in Kentucky); the government sent in troops against their own people after a local protest (about whiskey taxes!).  And whilst the former oppressors (in their case the British) were signing agreements to make good the results of their rule, the formerly oppressed were showing that they could hand out oppression themselves (to native Americans).  Meanwhile, the nation was preparing for life after its founding father (George Washington retired as President in 1797 and died 2 years later).

There are sadly many Americans who after a short visit to this country announce that they have ‘done Africa’.  After all, they have visited Mandela Square from their gated hotel in Sandton, they have been to the wild (in the form of a luxury safari lodge) and even – daringly! – have been on a ‘safari’ to a township.  It is too easy to mock such visitors while counting their especially welcome dollars.  I remember once, at the end of a tour of Robben Island, an elderly American lady had clearly been moved by the tales of sacrifice but not quite grasped the politics.  “But who did this to you?” she asked the ex-prisoner turned guide.  “Was it the Russians?”

But there are also Americans who come to learn, and do so humbly and respectfully.  At the Jesuit Institute we have the privilege of hosting students and faculty from American Jesuit universities such as Georgetown and Fordham.  One group of undergraduates have spent a semester at the University of Pretoria not just studying but also working 1-2 days a week in local community development projects.  They have, to some degree, been able to provide some practical assistance and share some skills.  But more than that they are returning back to their own cities with a deeper understanding of poverty and how the poor can be empowered (and also disempowered).  Strange that they have to travel 13,000 km to find this out when there is poverty on their own doorsteps.  Perhaps we also need to send some of our privileged middle-class learners to the Bronx or South Central Los Angeles to open their eyes to the poverty that they don’t notice here at home.

A common thread in the two countries’ history is, of course, race.  The Fordham students when they first arrived couldn’t help remarking that South Africans seem obsessed with race compared to Americans.  But on further reflection, they concluded that both countries were equally obsessed with race – South Africans showed this by talking about it; and Americans by not talking about it.

By coincidence, Gauteng theatres have just hosted two American plays about race performed (excellently) by South African actors: one about affirmative action in a law firm, the other about Martin Luther King.  Perhaps the real historic comparison is not with the decades after Independence but the decades after the Civil Rights Movement.  49 years after the Civil Rights Act, the US certainly has a sizeable black middle class.  But the majority of ‘African-Americans’ are less well educated, less well paid, less well housed, less healthy and less politically empowered than their fellow-citizens.  19 years after 1994 we are moving in the same direction but hopefully this is one American trend that we won’t feel compelled to follow.

Martin Luther King dreamt that his children would live in a nation where they would be judged not by the colour of their skin but the content of their characters.  The election of a black president in the US was seen as a great step forwards to this dream being realised.  Will South Africa ever be ready to elect someone not for the colour of their skin but for the content of their character?

Mr Raymond Perrier
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