I'll never forget the day we inaugurated Nelson Mandela as our nation's president. "Out of the experience of an extraordinary human disaster that lasted too long, must be born a society of which all humanity will be proud," Madiba said at the start of his speech, referring to our triumph over apartheid. It was 1994, and we were dancing in the streets. Newly empowered South Africans had the audacity to hope.
Fifteen years later, I can't help feeling that South Africa missed a great opportunity. We wasted our potential by putting our politicians, who liberated us from apartheid, on a pedestal. Instead of getting our hands dirty and rebuilding a nation from the ground up, we waited for hope to trickle down from the speeches of people like Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. During a time when crisis could've evolved into opportunity, South Africans were lulled into complacency. We bought into the wrong variety of hope...
It's probably a stretch to compare the current financial crisis to the collapse of apartheid, but the same principle applies. America is facing its own inflection point, and today's challenges need to turn into tomorrow's victories. The time has come for the world's superpower to realize that hope alone won't save the day. America must find inspiration from the possibilities created by empowered citizens, not from the words spoken by politicians. Now is not the time for America to repeat South Africa's mistakes.
The African National Congress (ANC), the governing party since the end of apartheid, promised that racial oppression would be replaced by economic opportunity. Sadly, the number of South Africans living on less than $1 a day has doubled from two to four million since 1994. The ANC promised jobs for all, but the unemployment rate has more than doubled to 48% between 1991 and 2002.
While the country's economic condition deteriorated, the elitist ANC kept hammering on the message of hope while asking disgruntled citizens to be patient. Thabo Mbeki, Mandela's successor, once talked about the dream of an African Renaissance, conveniently ignoring the fact that the average age life expectancy in South Africa dropped by 13 years since 1990.
To quote the late Studs Terkel: "Hope has never trickled down. It has always sprung up." This is what America can learn from South Africa. "The task as we move forward (as Obama likes to say) is not to abandon hope but to find more appropriate homes for it -- in the factories, neighborhoods and schools where tactics like sit-ins, squats and occupations are seeing a resurgence," wrote Naomi Klein in a recent article. "Being realistic means taking hope out of speeches," writes Sam Gindin, "and putting it in the hands of workers."
In closing, us South Africans have not abandoned hope, but we have found a new home for it. His name is Jacob Zuma, and he will be elected as our new president today. He is corruption, rape and polygamy all wrapped in one. He might be an uneducated militant, but his populist rhetoric has given South Africa's disenfranchised middle class new hope.
Unfortunately, South Africa is once again looking towards its politicians for answers...