It’s election day here in South Africa, and the polling station is right up the road from our house. Our landlady and friend Lauren brought me along when she voted, so I got to see South African democracy in action.
I have not been following the campaigning of the municipal elections too closely, but all indications point to a close race. The ruling party ANC (African National Congress) has been in power since it toppled Apartheid in 1994. But it has been riddled with charges of corruption, abuse of power, and failure to deliver basic services to the people in recent years. The opposition party, the DA (Democratic Alliance), as well as the third party Economic Freedom Fighters, are expected to give the ANC a run for their money. It’s an exciting time, and encouraging to see what will hopefully be free and fair elections take place in a continent well-known for its failures in the democracy department.
Since that is the extent of my understanding of South African politics, I will instead share some of the commentary on U.S. politics that we have heard this year.
Here is a situation we’ve experienced multiple times: a passport agent or Uber driver or friendly stranger finds out we’re American. Looking at us with a big grin, they exuberantly declare our president’s name, “OBAMA!”
Southern Africans LOVE Obama. There are stores named after him, his face is on t-shirts everywhere, a classmate of mine even had Obama’s face as a cellphone background. As controversial as his presidency is at home, there is no doubt that Obama’s time in office has sown goodwill for the U.S. abroad, something that was sorely lacking when I last lived overseas six years ago.
“Why Don’t You Elect Obama again?”
The love for the current U.S. President has led to this follow-on question on more than one occasion. Term limits are the law of the land here in South Africa, too (although some think the current President Jacob Zuma wants to keep the job for a third term.) But just north of here in Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe has been in power since 1987 and has effectively run his country into ruin. We have had to explain that our constitution mandates that eight years is all any president gets, regardless of their popularity.
“We Deserve Free Education, like in the U.S.”
When Spencer enrolled in classes in January, his college campus was under heightened security, with riot control police roaming the grounds. Since last year, South Africa has been experiencing widespread student protests about rising University fees. The movement, under the banner #FeesMustFall, has been generally peaceful but has also resulted in some heft property damage on campuses like Wits.
This has been especially interesting from our perspective, considering that low tuition was one of the primary factors that drove our decision to move to South Africa. Many locals we have spoken to were shocked to learn that not only is university education not free in the U.S., but it is in fact so unaffordable that it is leaving a generation of students under a crushing amount of debt and putting higher education out of the hands of many. Without resorting to property damage, maybe it’s time U.S. students take a page out of South Africa’s book and start demanding more accessible education for all. At least before I have to pay to send any kids to college, please.
“Trump is not going to win, is he?”
Any time our upcoming elections come up in conversation, this is asked with a mix of incredulousness and worry. At first, we laughed it off like the gag joke we thought it was. Now that it is clearly not a joke, I’m not really sure how to respond anymore, aside from shrugging my shoulders and trying to change the subject. I’ve yet to meet a single South African who understands how we ended up with Trump as candidate. I wish I understood myself.
The U.S. likes to preach democracy in places like sub-Saharan Africa, and I myself am a true believer in the virtues of a free and open democracy over any other form of government. There’s a catch, though. Democracy only works properly in the hands of an educated and informed populace. Without that, we are left with compromising and uncomfortable choices. It has put us in a situation where people across the world (and many Americans) are disillusioned with the U.S. political system, long considered the bastion of democracy.
Here in South Africa, the ANC came to power on the shoulders of one of Democracy’s greatest heroes, Nelson Mandela. I was excited to see his legacy of a peaceful, inclusive democracy living on at the polls. Both today and in November, I hope that whatever the outcome, it is based on an informed and involved populace deciding for themselves what the future of their country should be.