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South Africa's Fascination with America's 2008 Election

October 2008. It cannot be denied – South Africans are paying attention to the election of the next president of the United States. Politicians do so because they’re always interested in other politicians.

Newshounds do so because it’s news. But many other more normal South Africans are intrigued by the lengthy, lengthy campaign, and there are several explanations as to why.

South Africans are genuinely interested in the US presidency because they know that the US is a superpower, maybe the only global one. South Africa by no means follows America’s lead on many issues of international importance, but it just as certainly is enormously affected by America’s dominant economy and its foreign policies.

The natural affinity, admiration, and respect that South Africans have had for America have been eroded into oblivion by both the actions and the atmospherics of George W. Bush and his administration. Prior to 11 September 2001, President Bush was often regarded as an inarticulate buffoon, not a very interesting chap, and certainly never a serious statesman. After the terrorist attacks in the US, he started losing credibility on the international stage when he converted worldwide sympathy to worldwide hostility by ignoring the United Nations and lying about US rationale for invading Iraq. Before too long, it became evident that he is – to be kind – not smart. Bush relied on his deceitful Vice President Cheney and his bellicose Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld to be his public voice of unreason. The Bush administration cemented its reputation as both dangerous and hypocritical.

Beyond the peril Bush has put the world in, and no matter the inattention he has paid to Africa, he has – as an object of ridicule – proven of great entertainment value to South Africans. Despair at the unaccountability of South African government ministers if you will, but smirk when Bush says the torture at Abu Ghraib Prison was the work of low level personnel, as if they were unfamiliar with their superiors’ attitudes. Lose heart at the South African judicial system that so often doesn’t seem able to put bad people in jail, but grin when America’s human rights record is reduced to shame.

If so many Americans wonder how they could possibly elect Bush once, much less twice, South Africans interpret his election victories as evidence of America’s decay and Americans’ stupidity.

The percent of news from South Africa available to Americans is extremely low and most often relegated to the sensational. The percent of news from America available to South Africans is extremely high, and unfortunately often dominated by all manner of silly pop culture. Enter the US election season, and the opportunity for South Africans to see if their admiration for America can be restored, or lost for another administration.

South Africa’s news media can pick and chose from an enormous variety of serious and silly items from America. Complex and nuanced politics – not even readily understood by average Americans – are reduced to a single short story, that suggests, for instance, that Hillary Clinton would be unwelcome as a vice presidential running mate by Barack Obama, or that John McCain’s cancellation of the first day of his party’s convention because of a hurricane threat makes him a leader. The tone of such stories makes them simultaneously momentous and entertaining.

If you can stand the dominance CNN International gives to the US itself, you are certain to be entertained by the US presidential campaign. The US election is portrayed as sport. It’s not just winners and losers, victories and losses, but so many, many ways to keep score – opinion polls, voter registration, electoral college estimates, crowd counts, funds raised, and more. Now, on televised debates, we see an effort to make sense of it all by using computers to record instinctive, immediate reactions by so-called random voters to the live dialogue of candidates. Do independent female voters in the 35-50 age bracket react positively or negatively when Sarah Palin says “you betcha” or “doggone it”? Interactive scorecards will tell ya’.

Once the media propelled him to rock star status, South Africans have been captured by Barack Obama’s life story, charisma, and eloquence. We are left wondering, however – where are such leaders in South Africa? Just who are our leaders? Why do South Africans know that Obama’s father was from Kenya and his mother from Kansas, but still don’t know if President Kgalema Motlanthe was born in Alexandria or near Bela Bela, the youngest of 13 children or the oldest of three. It matters far more than simple accuracy. His formative years in an urban township or a rural village would tell us something about what to expect. South Africa’s current crop of political leaders had lives before Robben Island and Zambia; they did not emerge whole from exile or activism during the struggle. Biographies are important to understand the person.

South Africans are justifiably proud of their unlikely journey to democracy, but it is still a work in progress. The history of the new South Africa is still short enough (unlike the 230 year old United States) that its very fundamentals are the focus of public discourse. Is the country governed by the rule of law? Just what is the rule of law?

The checks and balances among the three branches of government – executive, legislative, and judicial – are clear in both countries. The US Supreme Court and other US courts order the President to cease some action, to take some action, or to provide answers. Most recently, a federal court ordered Bush to release 19 people held prisoner at Guantanamo for six years. The rule of law that seems to be a reality in the US is most often an issue for discussion here, providing yet another feature of US government that makes its election so interesting to South Africans.

Are the South African Parliament, provincial government, and local governments really elected by the people? Again, South Africans can’t help but notice that Americans are voting not for political parties who in turn select leaders, but rather directly for their local Congressional Representatives and Senators as well as state governors.

A South African citizen, watching the US election, sees a two party system, with an important third “party” of self-identified Independents. The excessive emphasis on patriotism by all parties suggests an unpalatable arrogance and may well turn off South Africans. And, the attention to the unimportant and silly certainly cheapens the system. But the rest – serious discussion about serious issues – is something that causes envy among South Africans.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu is careful enough not to mention the US by name, but one can be sure he is following the US election when he says he would welcome a new party established by unhappy ANC members: “I would think you really need to have a viable opposition ... one that gives the impression that it could become an alternative government. We don’t have anything like that just now and that’s probably not such a good thing.” He went on “Democracy flourishes where there is vigorous debate and people are actually careful of what they do, knowing that the electorate can take their revenge, that they can be kicked out of office at the next election.”

In other words, I may not be the only one watching the US presidential debates at three o’clock in the morning.