“Understanding this reality requires a reminder of how we arrived at this point. As William Faulkner once wrote: “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.” We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.” (Senator Barack Obama)
The above formed part of Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama’s reply to the criticism of his damaging association with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. (Philadelphia, March 18 2008)
In what has been described by some as his “Lincoln moment”, Obama tackled not only the questions on his relationship with Wright, who is renowned for his inflammatory racial remarks and condemnation of America, but also the issue of racism in America.
While many commentators are applauding Obama’s bravery in standing by Wright and meeting the race issue head-on, others have stated that he has transformed himself from a man who is running for president, who just happens to be black, into a black man running for president.
The transcript of the speech gives a clear insight into the Democratic candidate’s thinking on the state of race in America today and more importantly, from a South African perspective, throws light on issues which still divide us 14 years post-apartheid.
It also demonstrates what a powerful force for positive change in Africa Obama could be, if he were to be elected as president of the United States of America. His understanding of the racial divide, what causes it to shift and the ways in which it might be bridged, may well prove to be invaluable in putting this continent on the right track.
Starting with the opening paragraph where Obama quotes Faulkner — words which ring as true to South Africa today — as they were when he first uttered them. If regard is had to what we read in newspapers, people’s comments or even their actions, then transition is still very much a work in progress. We are still far too close to the end of apartheid to start thinking of it as the past; it is very much part of the here and now. While many of us would like to draw a line in the sand the reality does not allow for that just yet.
Our country as many are aware has a Constitution the equal of any in the world. Yet, in referring to one of the most famous and well established Constitutions, that of the US, he notes: “And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every colour and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part — through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk — to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.”
“It’s a story that hasn’t made me the most conventional candidate. But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts — that out of many, we are truly one.”
In essence, that a Constitution constructed with all the good intentions in the world, is not enough to set us free or mend the damage caused by the past. It takes South Africans, willing to go about their daily lives with the determination to make those words a reality. This does not happen overnight.
Indeed, as Nelson Mandela confirmed during his inauguration as state president in 1994: “We have fought for a democratic Constitution since the 1880s. Ours has been a quest for a Constitution freely adopted by the people of South Africa, reflecting their wishes and their aspirations. The struggle for democracy has never been a matter pursued by one race, class, religious community or gender among South Africans. In honouring those who fought to see this day arrive, we honour the best sons and daughters of all our people. We can count amongst them Africans, coloureds, Whites, Indians, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Jews — all of them united by a common vision of a better life for the people of this country.”
Which is what we need to start learning if we are to be the rainbow nation envisaged by Madiba, continued by president Mbeki with either JZ or Kgalema Motlanthe to follow — that all South Africans are different and that while we do form groups, each is an integral part of the whole — the aggregate of which makes us stronger. Our differences should be cause for celebration not division.
Obama then turned to the question of the Reverend Wright: “I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy. For some, nagging questions remain. Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely — just as I’m sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.”
Herein lies a great lesson for all South Africans. Where we disagree with others regarding issues or conduct pertaining to a person or group, then by all means debate them head on. Do not however write off an entire group based upon the misconduct of one or even a number of persons — this applies to us all.
“I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother — a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.
But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. We would be making the same mistake that Reverend Wright made in his offending sermons about America — to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality.
The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through — a part of our union that we have yet to perfect. And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care, or education, or the need to find good jobs for every American.
Understanding this reality requires a reminder of how we arrived at this point.”
It was at this point in his speech that he made reference to the quote from Faulkner; that the past is still here and part of our present. What evolved over centuries can never be undone overnight. We have to recognise that it remains part of the present in order to build for the future.
In addressing a congregation at the Methodist church in Langa in 1999, Madiba said: “Today we face new challenges, even greater than what we overcame when we freed our country from the system of apartheid. From the destruction of a past based on racial domination and discrimination we are building a society in which every one shall have the dignity of equality, opportunity and freedom from poverty. We are creating a society in which none need fear oppression by another; a society at peace with itself. Democracy has brought us the opportunity to meet this challenge. It is not an easy task nor will it be a quick one, to put right the legacy of hundreds of years.
Obama then went on to record his views on how the inequality among races arose: “Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven’t fixed them, fifty years after Brown vs Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today’s black and white students.
“Legalised discrimination — where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire departments — meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations. That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persists in so many of today’s urban and rural communities.
“A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one’s family, contributed to the erosion of black families — a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened. And the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods — parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pick-ups and building code enforcement — all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to haunt us.
“This is the reality in which Reverend Wright and other African-Americans of his generation grew up.”
Isn’t this the reality which we accept as having taken place but due to the painful memories that it brings back refuse to face head-on? When I tell my readers that I am for BEE and affirmative action some find it difficult to accept. They draw my attention to a non-racist new South Africa. While that may well be the end game, right now we have to accept that certain measures, arising from our troubled past, have to be introduced. Claiming non-racism as a blanket policy in the new South Africa is unfortunately unhelpful and does not resolve the more pressing problem of uplifting our people. Accepting what constitutes our past and that it remains with us even now paves the way for implementing solutions.
As Madiba confirmed during his inauguration: “The government will devise policies that encourage and reward productive enterprise among the disadvantaged communities — African, coloured and Indian. By easing credit conditions we can assist them to make inroads into the productive and manufacturing spheres and breakout of the small-scale distribution to which they are presently confined. To raise our country and its people from the morass of racism and apartheid will require determination and effort. As a government, the ANC will create a legal framework that will assist, rather than impede, the awesome task of reconstruction and development of our battered society.”
Obama was also mindful of the fear and anger which resides within the white community: “In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience — as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labour. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighbourhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.
Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren’t always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation. Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition. Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk-show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.
Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze — a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many. And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns — this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.
This is where we are right now. It’s a racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years. Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy — particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.”
The racial stalemate and concerns confronted by Obama in this speech are as appropriate to us in South Africa as they are to Americans. Segregation in the US has to a large degree occasioned the same problems we are experiencing here. By stepping back and hoping they will resolve themselves we are not doing ourselves any favours. We have to accept that the problems of the past are still with us and will be for some time. Building the future requires that we deal with them constructively, ie, factoring them into our decisions as well as, in the case of the black community, understanding the government’s current position when making demands.
“For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances — for better healthcare, and better schools, and better jobs — to the larger aspirations of all Americans — the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man whose been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family. And it means taking full responsibility for own lives — by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.”
This means that not only must the white community accept the problems arising from the past but so too the black community must accept that there will be sacrifices in the way we are required to build our future. We can work together to take it forward or all remain behind as the victims of our past.
As Madiba noted in this extract from an interview he did with the Christian Science Monitor in 2000: “It has been said that difficulties and disaster destroy some people and make others,” Mandela began. It was a phrase he had last used in a letter to Winnie in 1975. “Douw Steyn is one of those who has turned disaster into success,” he said of the wealthy businessman who had formerly supported apartheid. “Change yourself first — one of the most difficult things is not to change society — but to change yourself,” he said.
This is also very appropriate if we look at Obama’s take on Wright: “The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country — a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old — is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know — what we have seen – is that America can change. That is true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope — the audacity to hope — for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.”
Not only must we acknowledge the giant strides that have been made in 14 short years, which many of us fail to do, but also look within ourselves as Madiba says and ask whether we have evolved along with our country. Our Constitution and our hard-won freedoms are nothing without a change of mindset by all South Africans. To make these great ideals a reality we need to think about where we are now and how we would propose taking this forward to the benefit of us all.
Obama believes that the way to build solid bridges is there: “In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination — and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past — are real and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds — by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations. It requires all Americans to realise that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.”
This again applies to us all — the need to accept that our concerns and fears are real and should not be ignored — that all South Africans must share the problems that beset some South Africans and that by solving them is to the benefit of us all.
“In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world’s great religions demand – that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother’s keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister’s keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.”
The problems of our fellow South Africans are the problems of us all — if we can use that as our starting point we will make progress far quicker than looking after ourselves. For example, if people are squatting that is not a black problem it is a South African problem. It touches on crime, health, poverty and too many other issues to list here. By dealing with it you reduce many of the problems facing this great nation. This must apply accross the board.
Obama’s speech was more than just a Lincoln moment, it was a reaffirmation of the ideals and aspirations of one of the greatest human beings that ever lived — Nelson Mandela — that a rainbow nation, working and living together as one, would occupy the Southern tip of Africa.
“We place our vision of a new constitutional order for South Africa on the table not as conquerors, prescribing to the conquered. We speak as fellow citizens to heal the wounds of the past with the intent of constructing a new order based on justice for all.
This is the challenge that faces all South Africans today, and it is one to which I am certain we will all rise”.