President Barack Obama’s re-election last week reminds us that the embrace of diversity is America’s greatest gift to the world. South Africa, like the United States, is one of the world’s most diverse countries with a similar burden of history of racial separation. This had led some of us in the small cocooned world of politics to ask if an Obama figure could win in South Africa.
At first blush, the answer seems to be no.
South Africa, with a bigger youth demographic than America, appears to have a penchant for choosing presidents of retirement age. Actually, we don’t. If we could directly elect our president, President Jacob Zuma would have spent a lot more time in the green hills of Nkandla or, possibly, as a guest of correctional services over the last few years.
Our presidents are minted by a strict party-list system of proportional representation: the winning party truly takes all. Prior to that, the Byzantine process of intrigue and skulduggery from which the ANC leader emerges makes a papal conclave look fun and transparent.
These two factors mean that the arc of national leadership bends towards predictability and safety, not the themes of “audacity” and “change”.
But to just focus on Obama’s relative youthfulness to explain his victory is to miss the point. Obama won, in large part, because he is a man of our time. He knows what makes his fellow citizens tick because he led a life similar to many of them in recent memory.
Much of the media coverage on how Obama won has correctly honed in on the sophisticated data techniques used to capture minority voters. But the appeal of Obama’s core message was derived from the one that has guided America since the time of the founding fathers. As diverse as we may be, we share similar aspirations. And we are bound together as one nation under God.
Obama was not especially young when, at 47, he became president in 2008. His Democratic Party predecessors, John F Kennedy and Bill Clinton, were younger when they became president. Here, of course, grooming, pedigree and image are all.
President Obama was 35 when he assumed his first public office as a junior Illinois senator. Importantly, he had done normal things before going into public life. Obama had not treaded the path of professional politician through the Democrat Party machinery. He had been a law lecturer and Chicago community organiser on the gritty South Side. He had a wealth of life experience to draw upon. His wife’s earnings far outstripped his. They could have got along just fine without going into public life.
One of my greatest privileges during my year at the Kennedy School of Government was to attend a breakfast with Clinton’s former defence secretary, William Perry.
“There goes Lenin”, Perry, the evening before, had boyishly called out to his delighted audience, at a news clip of Lenin’s statue being hoisted by a helicopter over a former Soviet city.
No one had anticipated that the octogenarian would generously pepper the dry sounding Robert McNamara Lecture on War and Peace with interactive images.
Perry, happily tenured as an academic at Stanford University and was well into his 60s when Clinton asked him to come to Washington as defence secretary. His wife had a thriving legal practice in Palo Alto. Clinton had to plead with Perry several times before he agreed with the proviso that it would only be for one term. Perry went on to negotiate several treaties to dramatically cut America and Russia’s nuclear stockpile.
My key point, though, is that it was a dreadful wrench for Perry to go to DC. I doubt the same can be said of many South African politicians who go to Cape Town. And I think I know why: money.
The salary packages South African parliamentarians get is scandalous, eclipsing the salaries of their British and German counterparts. The result is that in a poor country with a thin tax crust, like ours, an MP’s salary in excess of R800 000 can become aspirational rather than sacrificial. Would a career in South African politics be as attractive if, say, the package was R400 000? This figure itself is higher than the household income of the average South African home.
I often hear people (usually MPs) say that parliamentarians need to be well-paid in order to attract the “best” from the private and public sector. Not only does this not always appear to be evidence-based, the obvious rejoinder is: why? The best politicians everywhere are the reluctant ones; individuals who had to give up something. The entire point of public service is that one is expected to lay aside self-interest to contribute to the public good; to be a servant.
The Perry principle demonstrates that we need people who come into public service kicking and screaming. I am astonished how often I hear twentysomethings here, and in other countries, say they want to become parliamentarians. What talent or constituency do (most of them) possibly think they would bring to political life?
Making South African politics youthful and energetic will require more than fast-tracking young people into public office. If only it was that easy.
Being young is a time in life, not a quality in itself. Speaking at the University of Cape Town, Robert Kennedy famously described youth as being a state of mind, not a time in life. We need youthful politicians who have wrestled with balance sheets, turned around schools and hospitals, mastered legal briefs, captained military units, dispensed life-saving drugs to the world’s poorer spots, led faith-based congregations — and maybe one or two who, unlike Clinton, did inhale.
Only then, maybe, will a “reluctant” Obama figure step forward to lead South Africa.