South Africa has not had the best of years. We’ve had power cuts and we’ve had xenophobic attacks. We’ve had all sorts of upheavals and sometimes, in conversation and in our media, one would think that we have nothing still to inspire us.
Yet we do. Again and again I am amazed at how much we have given to the world, and how proud we should be for these gifts. For example, as I write this, the world is both mourning Miriam Makeba and celebrating her life, a remarkable life of commitment, activism – and the most beautiful and haunting art.
The world over, many are mourning with us the gifts that a remarkable South African has given to the world. I cannot tell you how many foreigners I have met who knew only two things about South Africa – The Click Song and the committed woman behind it, and Nelson Mandela.
Many of these people found themselves at marches to protest against apartheid after being moved by the words uttered by these two icons.
November has been a remarkable month for the world. Barack Obama, a young man who has wowed the world and restored people’s faith in politics, was voted in overwhelmingly as president of the most powerful country in the world.
But what is inspiring is that were it not for the inspiration that Obama received from our own country, he may have gone on to become a rich lawyer (he is a Harvard Law School graduate after all) and never entered politics.
Obama told the South African Institute for International Affairs on his visit to South Africa in 2006 that he was inspired by a group of exiled African National Congress (ANC) members to go into politics.
Writer Peter Fabricius records that Obama said at the South African Institute of Race Relations meeting that “people often ask me how I got involved in politics”.
“I tell them I was not born into a political family; I was not active in student government in high school. But when I was in college there was one issue that moved me for the first time in my life to become politically active. The issue was apartheid. And, as a young college student, I became deeply involved with the divestment movement in the US.
“I remember meeting a group of ANC leaders, hearing of their struggles for freedom and their leader Nelson Mandela.”
Fabricius writes that Obama then described how Mahatma Gandhi began his quest for India’s independence in South Africa, which inspired Martin Luther King, whose civil rights movement, in turn, helped move South Africans such the ANC’s leaders to act against apartheid.
“It is likely that I would not be here today speaking to you as a United States senator had I not met with those ANC members,” he said.
Today, everywhere one goes, the election of Obama is being spoken of in terms that are likened to Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 after 27 years of incarceration. Many see in Obama the qualities, the transcendence over race and bitterness, that Mandela embodied. His election unleashed that same emotion in people across the world: the world is capable of surpassing its everyday, mediocre, standards.
“This is America’s Mandela moment!” shouted US consul general for South Africa Alberta Mayberry to a reporter – while watching the Obama victory on television – when it became reality.
Mayberry told reporters that there was an extraordinary poignancy in experiencing the election of America’s first black president while in Nelson Mandela’s country.
And it is true.
Way back in 2004, an unknown Barack Obama stood up at the Democratic National Convention and gave a speech that, within four years, would catapult him to the presidency of the US.
“My presence on this stage is pretty unlikely,” he said. “I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story… and that, in no other country on earth, is my story even possible.”
None of us in South Africa even had an inkling that a young man was making history across the Atlantic. But we identified with this sentiment, because we had heard before from the lips of Mandela.
“I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die,” Mandela had said from the dock during the Rivonia Trial in 1964.
That country that Mandela yearned for is the same dispensation that Obama was talking about when he spoke of his own American dream.
A lot of people and countries now claim Obama as their own. He cannot belong to everyone. He is an American president. But it is a deeply comforting thought that we, too, had a small part in giving the world such an outstanding leader.
Justice Malala is an award-winning former newspaper editor, and is now general manager of Avusa’s stable of 56 magazines. He writes weekly columns for The Times newspaper and Financial Mail magazine, as well as a monthly media and politics column for Empire magazine. He is the resident political analyst for independent television channel e.tv and has consulted extensively for financial institutions on South African political risk. Malala was also an executive producer on Hard Copy I and II, a ground-breaking television series on SABC 3. Hard Copy I won the Golden Horn Award for best television series. Malala’s work has been published internationally in the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Financial Times, The Independent, Forbes, Institutional Investor, The Age and The Observer.