Yes, we can

Kevin Davie

Events which capture the imagination on a global scale as an affirmation of humanity are few and far between. Until a week ago my list of such events which have occurred during my lifetime was short, very short.

One was the sequence after Nelson Mandela came out of jail and the new South Africa was born. The other was the fall of the Berlin Wall. If I had the chance to re-live just one of these events it would be the Mandela miracle, but then, of course, I am hopelessly biased.

But the end of communism and the reunification of Germany has now been eclipsed by what is arguably an event of even greater significance, the election of Barack Obama as the next president of the United States.

On election night one voter interviewed after the result was known said that it showed that the message was that if you got an education and pulled your pants up, any job was yours for the taking.

The fall of the Berlin Wall is undoubtedly a watershed event in world history but on balance, I would argue that the election of a black man to run the world’s most powerful country has the edge as a world-changing event.

So much was riding on the outcome of the election that Obama supporters across the globe hardly dared breathe in the last few days as they waited tentatively for the outcome. It mattered not that the polls showed Obama was ahead by as many as 11 percentage points.

Fears that the election would somehow be stolen were palpable and no supporter dared even think of victory until it was announced on a giant board by CNN.

Not that the Obama camp was not confident of victory and the McCain camp not anticipating defeat. This is seen in the after-party arrangements: Obama had handed out 70 000 tickets, McCain just 2 500.

Obama, by his own admission, would not be what he is without South Africa. He switched to politics from law because of apartheid.

And now his message of change is resonating in South Africa. Politicians are studying his political organisation and, in particular, his use of social media to connect with volunteers and voters.

The use of digital media in politics is not new in South Africa, but safe to say that voters here can expect an onslaught of messages in the coming months as the Obama wannabes fight for digital space. This is not only great for democracy but also for Telkom, Vodacom and MTN shareholders who stand to benefit from the high-priced services they offer.

The Democratic Alliance’s Helen Zille was last week looking for early mover advantage, but then, all fingers and thumbs, she sent the same message three times. I have this image of Zille with her cellphone: she is not sure whether the first message went so she sent it again, and then again just for good measure.

South African politicians across the spectrum are keen to associate themselves with Obama. They want to embrace his message of change, his organisational prowess, his keen grasp of policy issues and, if they possibly could, his oratory.

These talents have given Obama the top job. What talents he will need to get the United States out of the once-in-a-century fix in which it finds itself, is entirely another matter.

Satirical internet magazine The Onion headlined a story on Obama’s victory “Black man given nation’s worst job”. The consensus is that not since FD Roosevelt in the 1930s has an American president faced such a tough challenge.

A toxic cocktail of lax financial market regulation, cheap Greenspan money, government attempts to encourage house ownership, runaway Wall Street greed and stratospheric oil prices have conspired to batter the economy.

If the cocktail had only hammered the United States the news would not be that bad, but the toxicity was exported to many countries abroad and stratospheric oil prices of recent times have also been felt universally.

The United States swims in every kind of debt. It now has a whole new type of debt caused by the bailout. The way this works is that you first make sure you have a humungous problem: then you take it to Washington where you get a monster cheque written.

Who will honour the cheque? The optimistic school says economic growth will bring taxes and foreign investors who will buy government bonds. Later the government can sell its stakes in the bailed-out companies and all’s well that ends well.

The pessimistic scenario says that investors (think China) will no longer buy bonds but prefer to invest in their own (regulated) country. China has already announced a US$560-billion (R5.7-trillion) stimulus for its own economy.

Unconfirmed reports say that the United States nationalised the troublesome twins, Fannie and Freddie, after China warned that it would no longer buy US treasuries if they were allowed to fail.

The bailout can be seen in these terms – a desperate attempt to ensure that foreign investors continue to buy American.

The pessimists are warning that any day now the ratings agencies could downgrade US treasuries from AAA status. This would require many investors to seek safer havens for their funds.

Downgrading the United States could spark the run of runs and end the era of the dollar as the de facto international currency standard.

And if this all was not enough, throw in the challenges of climate change, and you have a seriously overloaded in-tray at the oval office.

I am betting that Obama will rise to the challenge and be recognised not only as the first black president, but one of the greatest of any time.

In South Africa we are already in his debt. He has helped put two key political reforms on the front burner.

One is a return to constituency representation to replace the tyranny of proportional politics.

The other is the idea that the president should not be voted in by a couple of thousand people at happened at Polokwane. Every voter should have his or her say.

As a journalist Kevin Davie is a Nieman Fellow and editor of numerous South Africa business magazines and newspapers. As an Internet entrepreneur he co-founded South Africa’s first online stockbroker and WOZA, the first news portal which was independent of a traditional publisher.

He divides his time between the Mail & Guardian, where he  runs the business section and pursues the twin interests of economics and environmentalism, and projects in construction (particularly green building) and a better way to search the Internet. He also makes time to paddle and ride his mountain bike.