South Africa

Time/Space Continuum: I hope for South Africa, I fear for the United States

It does not seem fair that the author must always be watching one of the two nations he loves in danger, never able to cheer for the two of them together for their successes. J. BROOKS SPECTOR is not happy.

Readers of my columns and articles in Daily Maverick over the past nine years almost certainly have come to notice the binational focus that inhabits so much of my writing in this space. As an American who represented his country around the world for 30 years, until a decade and a half ago, it is obvious that even into retirement, I continue to think constantly about the circumstances of my home nation.

Simultaneously, I live in South Africa now (and did for significant periods of time from the 1970s onwards, and, most important, since 2001) and pretty much everything we own is physically here. Many of my closest friends and acquaintances are here in South Africa, and one of our daughters and my spouse are here as well  – along with a large extended family, courtesy of my wife, all across this country. In short, I am invested in the future of this country.

Given these ties, it is impossible for me to not care about the fortunes and circumstances of either of these places. While I also spent many years living and working in East and South-east Asia, these two poles of my attention – South Africa and America – are much closer to me than anywhere else on Earth, and so I always have much deeper, more direct, more personal feelings for both America and South Africa than I do for any other real estate on the planet.

Presidential speeches and other notable public events in both nations – no matter what time it is or where I am at the time – always seize my attention. I rush to check what newspapers and electronic media (online or broadcast) may be saying about developments in both nations the moment I wake up in the morning – often to the consternation and disapproval of my spouse, although she surely must be used to this behaviour by now.

As a result of this bifurcated pull on my attentions, I am forever searching for points of comparison, difference and similarity between the two societies.

Early on, I found that scholarly works such as the late historian George Frederickson’s magisterial comparative work, White Supremacy, have served as lodestars for me in finding the historical, economic, societal and political parallels (and differences) between my two nations.

For the past several years, I have increasingly become fascinated – and appalled – by a kind of seesaw between the two places. When one of these nations is in trouble, the other seems to be hopeful, on the ascendant, but it is much rarer when the two are in sync – save, perhaps, for the period of the Mandela presidency and that of the Clinton administration.

When apartheid South Africa was a in the turmoil of its final years, the US had moved into a period of societal calm and economic progress. Years before that, when the US was consumed by the upheavals of the Vietnam War and the revolution in civil rights, South Africa seemingly was frozen in a kind of amber, at least until 1976, of course.

For the past decade, for many people, the years of the Obama administration, despite its faults and falterings, gave many people a growing assurance that the curse of racism had been decisively beaten off, with the election of an African-American president. Here was a leader who brought a sense of grace into the White House and a sense of decency in national discourse. (This save for those who continued to see him as an interloper into national political leadership that belonged to others.)

A very different type of person gained the presidency a year ago (although he may well have needed the trolls, bots and hackers allied with or in the pay of Russia). Donald Trump rode the wave of an often thuggish, increasingly fact-free, simplistic campaign into the White House.

Once there, he has stoked a political culture into becoming an increasingly mean-spirited, spiteful, demonising, angry public discourse, virtually unique in American history, save for the years immediately leading into the Civil War. Simultaneously, this Trump administration has also been marked by an often chaotic, embarrassingly jejune style of foreign policy and domestic policy advocacy that has seemed obscenely eager to reward the rich but scourge all those lazy, poor ingrates and fence jumpers the country is saddled with, at least according to the gospel of trust fund babies, the president’s coterie of super-rich golfing buddies, and some hard-edged political allies.

Meanwhile, in South Africa, almost as if in temporal counterbalance to the Obama years after the near economic collapse in 2008-9, South Africa increasingly fell into the grasp of a corrupt, steadily more thuggish regime, allied with a jostling gaggle of grafters, nouveau riche strivers, outright thieves, and just plain garden-variety fools who looted the state and its quasi-governmental bodies – or simply frittered away taxpayers’ money from sheer incompetence.

Incoherent policy-making drove up government spending that benefited few, save for those who grabbed the tender contracts. The economy stagnated and unemployment continued to grow, now at unsustainable levels. Eventually, disgust with the growing political squalidness finally drove even many of the president’s long-term supporters to switch sides in a neck-and-neck contest – and the country has been given one more chance.

And so, here I am. Even as the American political landscape has become increasingly appalling, with a president who has an absolute tin ear for adult behaviour in public life (let alone in his private one), and a chilling nonchalance about grasping a realisation that agents for his favourite foreign leader had a hand in trying to fatally corrupt the US political process, South Africa has gotten a second chance with the country’s new president, Cyril Ramaphosa.

But, of course, the near-decade of the Zuma economic and political bacchanal has now given the government a massive hangover. The Budget that was put forward on Wednesday has been a stark acknowledgement that there simply is not enough money to cover costs, even when taxes are increased, unless the economy goes into overdrive and a magical amount of unknown cost savings will be squeezed out.

The bloated government structures will soon need to be hacked away at until some measure of reasonability prevails, but lurking there on the near horizon is the stark fact that even under the most optimistic of projections, South Africa’s economic growth will still lag behind new entrants into the economy. Yes, while the new president is positioned to offer hope that rational governance is coming in, the sharp truth is that it will probably be years before most people will be able see any change for the better in their personal circumstances.

Back across the Atlantic Ocean, meanwhile, the US president and his congressional supporters and lackeys are pushing for a national budget that will add trillions to the American national debt, even as it will pare back social welfare structures, roll back the kinds of regulatory mechanisms that protect citizens, and slice away so many other government efforts slowly built up since the Great Depression.

And, of course, that list does not include the foreign policy incoherence and simplistic bluster that has put the country – and the world – into greater danger.

It is not fair I am unable to hold affection for two nations and simultaneously see both of their circumstances and fates blessed by the hopes and dreams of their respective citizens. This time around, I hope for South Africa, but I fear for the country of my birth. DM

Photo: (Left) President of South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa listens to the annual Budget speech delivered by Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba at Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, 21 February 2018. EPA-EFE/BRENTON GEACH. (Right) US President Donald J. Trump (L) gestures while delivering remarks beside First Lady Melania Trump (R), while hosting a reception in honour of National African American History Month, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 13 February 2018. EPA-EFE/MICHAEL REYNOLDS