Letter from the Philippines: A resurrected Zuma, speechifying under the coconut trees?

The Philippines and South Africa may not be joined together in a high-profile political and economic partnership, like BRICS. Still, we are two sibling post-colonial democracies birthed, in part or whole, by popular protest, within eight years of each other.

It’s Monday morning, and we’re looking out from our 34th floor Makati flat towards Manila Bay. After Sunday’s relative clarity, the grey smog has thickened again to erase the mountains and sea, the residential streets, and even the nearby skyscrapers. It may be the worst air pollution I’ve seen. It makes hazy brown Jo’burg in winter look positively limpid. The price of progress? Metropolitan Manila now houses 13 million people. And while lagging its neighbours, the Philippines is still a booming Asian economy running on everything from customer call centres to semiconductor and coconut oil exports: Nutella and iPhones for the West. This morning, a flood of vehicles clogs up Epifanio de Los Santos Avenue, known informally as EDSA: the same street that filled, in 1986, with two million yellow-ribbon-wearing protesters who stayed there until dictator Ferdinand Marcos fled into exile. But the charm and vibrancy of the developing world are here, too. The streets are full of hawkers selling food, clothes, toys, and Christmas lights. The busy working-class neighbourhood of Magellanes is a warren of bakeries and grocery shops, shiatsu parlours and fortune tellers, hair salons and scooter repair joints. The Philippines and South Africa may not be joined together in a high-profile political and economic partnership, like BRICS. Still, we are two sibling post-colonial democracies birthed, in part or whole by popular protest, within eight years of each other. Here, Corazon Aquino and her assassinated husband smile out from the back of the 500-peso bill. Arguably, both countries face challenges that differ from kleptocracies like Russia, authoritarian states like China, or more mature democracies like India. Take climate change. In 2018, Cape Town became the poster child for one grave consequence of a warming world: extreme drought, aggravated by rapid urban growth. The Philippines, on the other hand, remains the global nation most exposed to intensifying tropical cyclones. Haiyan, in 2013, left 11 million people homeless—an entire Gauteng. Deforestation is a problem, here, as is future sea level rise, with almost two-thirds of the country’s population living in coastal cities. In the midst of all this, both countries proceed with what one can only call commendable civic spirit, mixed with anger at the often empty official rhetoric. Thus, Capetonians accomplish some of the most impressive water conservation statistics in history, while the feeder canals to its dams remained silted due to poor maintenance. The Philippines similarly adopts a grand-sounding National Climate Change Action Plan, and Yeb Saño, the lead climate negotiator for the Philippines at the 2013 Paris agreements, fasts and cries for climate justice. Yet locally, almost all its electricity still comes from cheap coal, and it was ordinary people who picked up tree limbs after Haiyan, hammered together tin roofs, and buried and memorialised the drowned—not the government in Manila. Or take racial reconciliation, another hot-button issue for both countries. If climate change reveals how hollow democracy can sometimes be, then racism arguably exposes its fragility. In South Africa, land expropriation without compensation exposes deep national wounds that, if handled carelessly, could threaten the national democratic project itself — a point President Ramaphosa made obliquely during his recent speech on National Reconciliation Day. Yet a visit to the National Archaeology Museum makes clear the Philippines has its own grave racial conflicts. Tensions continue between the two major ethnic groups in the country, the dominant northern Tagalogs and the relatively marginalized southern Cebuanos. In addition, the country contains as many as 170 indigenous pre-colonial tribes. The latter’s cultures are commemorated at the museum via an exhibition tracing the annual “National Living Treasures” award given to artists, writers, and musicians who keep old traditions alive. The Philippines has also faced half a century of armed secessionist movements based in the predominantly Muslim South. Contrary to mainstream media reports, it is this crisis, rather than some vaguely defined global trend towards populism, that has placed recent pressure on the rule of law in this lush, subtropical archipelago. In South Africa, as internationally, current Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has attracted most attention for his war on drug syndicates, which has resulted in the summary execution of approximately 5,000 suspected dealers to date. Duterte has also been widely compared to Trump, with whom he supposedly shares a straight-talking style and a disregard for the niceties of civil rights. Yet here in the Philippines, Duterte, unlike Trump, still commands 75% approval ratings. One reason may be that here, Duterte is as known for his racial conciliation policies as for his macho-strongman posturing. Duterte is only the second Cebuano president in Philippine history, and the first to come from Mindanao, the southern island at the heart of the anti-government insurgency. There, he first made his name as Davao City mayor by insisting, for the sake of ethnic and cultural inclusion, on appointing deputy mayors from the “Moro,” or Muslim, minority groups. While several of Duterte’s predecessors engaged in important peacemaking initiatives, Duterte’s presidential campaign included a hugely popular proposal for increased federalism as a solution to Moro secessionism. Duterte has also been instrumental in advocating for changes to the Bangosoro autonomous region — a key initiative that pundits here are saying may finally end the fighting. The Moro National Liberation Front endorsed Duterte for president. Duterte has described himself as the Philippines’ “first leftist president”, committed to ending the exploitation of the country’s natural resources and orienting its foreign policy away from its former colonizers. A president who challenges fragile, young democratic norms, while at the same time taking unprecedented steps to heal cultural divisions? A charismatic leader who speaks to his nation’s exhaustion with corruption and crime, while at the same time promising the poor a better future? In many ways, Duterte arguably represents less a Trump-like figure than the leader Zuma supporters hoped they had elected, back in Polokwane in 2007. Thus far, Duterte has avoided being tarnished with major corruption scandals like the kind that eventually brought down Zuma — or, for that matter, Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino III. Like Duterte, Zuma was plain-talking. Like Duterte, he sometimes made fun of constitutional protections — most notably, in 2006, for LGBT South Africans. But like Duterte, Zuma was invested by his supporters with the hope that he might also be able to make headway on the country’s most festering injustices. And psychologists tell us hope is as necessary to human well-being as clean air and water — even, maybe, like the sunrise. DM Glen Retief’s The Jack Bank: A Memoir of a South African Childhood won a Lambda Literary Award. He teaches creative non-fiction at Susquehanna University.