A local Obama?

#80. Wonder whether SA can produce an Obama. Last night I was  at University of Johannesburg listening to a panel discussion convened by The Weekender on the topic: “Can SA produce its own Obama?” The premise for the discussion was: “In the USA the system was able to produce – against all odds, defying conventional wisdom, unsupported by the party machinery and despite deeply rooted racial discrimination [sic] – a new kind of leader. Barack Obama was elected because of his values, his message and his charisma. Could our electoral system produce the “right” leader?”.

Adam Habib, Deputy Vice Chancellor of the university and panel host took on the role of  “devil’s” advocate (and I am not for a minute suggesting he was pretending to be Michael Hulley) raising whether SA had not already produced its Obama — and his name is Zuma.  “Is Zuma an Obama for young people, for the marginalised?” he asked. “Obama says Yes we Can, Zuma says Umshini Wam”. With good humour he suggested parallels could be drawn — a background of poverty, a rise against all odds kind of story. It’s an audacious thought….

but not one worth entertaining.

The audience and other panelists (among them M&G editor Ferial Haffajee, Mbeki biographer Mark Gevisser and veteran SA politician Tony Leon) seemed overwhelmingly in favour of the idea that we had actually produced an Obama even before the US did, and his name is Mandela.

Panelist and political analyst Prince Mashele struck back with how, on his way to the discussion, his mind had wandered and he had had a vision of Barack Obama and JZ meeting at a G8 Summit and Barack asking JZ how “we should deal with the scientific dimension of global warming?”

“Before my imagination ran wild I said ‘Keep quiet… you are being counter-revolutionary”, he said — it was accompanied by gales of laughter from the jam-packed auditorium (a great piece of architecture that stands opposite a funky art gallery and in stark contrast to the former Rand Afrikaans’ Universiteit’s incredibly ugly monolithic apartheid-style buildings that pre-1994 served as a laager (not to be mistaken with a lager — which would have made national memory all the more easier to bear).

The discussion was a lively one and some interesting points were made — that SA’s political system would prevent an Obama for ascending, that our politics is not based on merit but on party loyalty, that Obama speaks across so many sectors while JZ speaks to one, and most interestingly that Obama’s rise to power came at a time of national crisis — the global economic meltdown — and that visionary leadership comes through national crisis.

Which made me think about why it is that we are so afraid to say we are having a crisis. Year after year the same headline makes its way onto front pages for different reasons. HIV/AIDS, Electricity shutdown, unemployment, poverty, corruption, crime, a dire lack of leadership, police chief accused of consorting with the Mob   — and we say “Crisis, What Crisis?” as if that will provoke an appropriate response.

It never does.

Maybe it’s time to re-evaluate our approach — instead of just smiling and waving in a case where the soon-to-be president and holder of the highest office in the land is unraveling one of the finest Constitutions ever written,  has been charged with more counts of wrongdoing and corruption than can be contained by a single digit and has more relations with women (conjugal and otherwise) than sense,  it’s time to say — maybe in just a whisper that





3 thoughts on “A local Obama?

  1. “Yes we can” produce our own Obama, in fact, “we’ve been having it” in none other than President Thabo Mbeki. Insofar as Mr. Zuma is concerned, it would take an extra tenacious imagination to see him in the same light as President Obama. Call me a dullard but my imagination cannot go that far. The qeustion then should be, ‘do we need another Obama?’, no we don’t. We don’t even deserve an Obama, at least not now, maybe in ten-to-fifteen years time. In the meantime we will have to bear with the ‘Mtshini wam, mtshini wam’.

  2. Who is to say that an Obama is the best type of leader? I have to say that I am uneasy about the premise of your question. Shouldnt we wait to see if Obama is actually going to be a success as a leader.
    Perhaps he isn’t going to be one. What is it that we see in Obama that we want to see in our own country? Is it meerely the symbolism of a leader thats ‘down the people’,’was part of the struggle’ or is ‘one of us’ then I see no reason why Jacob Zuma can’t seen as precisely that for many South Africans.
    If however you see an Obama style leader as a reformational leader who saves the country from calamity or increases its strength relative to other nations of the world or instigates policies that enable its people to enjoy a wealth and prosperity unsurpassed in the nation’s history then its unsure whether either Zuma or Obama will ever be that leader.

    Sure Obama is cool. Mandela is way cooler.

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