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11/03/2008 02:21 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Campaign Journal: Canvassing for Mandela and Obama in Bristol, PA

Shaun Gatter is an OffTheBus Grassroots Correspondent. Each week he contributes a campaign journal documenting his life out on the trail.

Growing up in apartheid South Africa, the America I saw on television was a mythical place where people of all races lived and worked together seemingly unaware of their differences. I was particularly amazed that in America there were black police captains, black sergeant-majors, lawyers and doctors. Until I entered university in 1989, the only black people I knew were maids and gardeners - laborers.

No doctors. No lawyers. Certainly no Presidents.

I like to think that I never left South Africa. I came to New York.
I fell in love with New York in the summer of 2000. The epitome of the America I'd seen on TV as a child, New York was the very best of America and even more so that summer. Here the races and tribes of the world literally rub up against each other on subway seats, city streets, in boardrooms and beds. New York is where America encounters the world and here the world falls in love with America. It took a few years before I realized that New York had black townships too.

That summer is a distant memory.

Philosophers hailed the end of history. Benevolent commerce had rendered our leaders mere custodians, elected simply to block interference with the seemingly self-sustaining economic boom. War was a discredited and soon to be extinct strategy. We were giddy with optimism.

Anything was possible. What could go wrong? A lot, it turned out.

In the days after September 11, 2001, friends and family from around the world called to see "how New York was doing." In Johannesburg, my brother hung an American flag from his car and drove around town to enthusiastic honking and cheers of "Go USA!". Iranians held candle-lit vigils for America.

Eight years later, at my Naturalization Ceremony in November last year, the America to which I swore allegiance was very a different place.

I volunteered to canvas for Barack Obama in Bristol, Pennsylvania. While packing for the trip, I felt a powerful deja vu. There was something familiar about this election, a sense that things might change, that the naked abuse of power and the cynical manipulation of our fears might actually come to an end. It was something I hadn't felt since the last time I went door to door for a leader I believed in.

That was 1994, the first truly democratic election in South Africa. The leader was Nelson Mandela.

On a grey New York morning I boarded the train to Trenton and then Bristol, Pennsylvania. I had no idea which America I would find at the end of the line. I tried to remember what I had entered under my preferred voter base. I thought I'd said "urban voter". My accent, still very South African yet, incredibly to my English friends, somehow posh to the American ear, concerned me. I thought it would be less of an issue for the average big city person. Then I wondered whether "urban voter" was an American euphemism for "poor black person." As a white South African, I would feel stupid trying to convince African-Americans to vote for Obama. Beaver Street, the wide thoroughfare from the Bristol train station to the Obama office is lined with small, neat houses with peeling porches, faded plastic scooters and horses on rusty springs in the front yards. The inhabitants are white and working class: the men tanned and wiry, the woman smoking and heavily made up. Where I grew up, poor white people were almost as rare as middle-class black people. I hoped for the projects.

It was as humid as a rain forest. In the center of town, campaign headquarters were difficult to miss. The front window of the small legal office on the main street was plastered with printed and hand-written posters: "Volunteer for Change." "Register!!!!" and "Hope."
I decided to cool down and smoke a cigarette on the steps of the apartment building opposite before heading into the office. A tall black man in a 76'ers T-Shirt and jeans approached me.

"Hey, you the utility guy?"

"No."

"Sorry. I'm waiting on a guy to fix my power."

"No problem."

"He sat down on the steps beside me.

"Where you from?"

"South Africa, originally"

"South Africa?"

"Yup."

" So what y'all doing here?"

I felt a familiar and uncomfortable coyness talking to black people about black leaders. "I'm volunteering for Barack Obama."

"You shitting me. You came all the way from South Africa to work for Obama?"

"No. I live in New York."

"You came all the way from New York?"

"Yup."

"You met him?"

"Obama?"

"Yeah."

"No."

"So you came all the way from New York to volunteer for a guy you never met?"

"Yup."

"Hmmm."

He nodded and looked over to the office before speaking again. "I met Bill Clinton once. He came out here, for Hillary."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. He a nice guy."

"I suppose."

He nodded again, satisfied.

"Well I think that's cool man."

"Thanks, man."

There's nothing a white boy wants more than to be thought of as cool by a black man. That goes double for a white African boy. I stubbed out my cigarette and stood up. We shook hands.

"Hope the utility guy comes. Vote Obama."

"Good luck, man. Ain't no way America gonna vote a black man for President. They'll kill him first."

It's been a lifetime since this election began, a decade since Barack Obama was nominated as the Democratic candidate. The election of Nelson Mandela was forty years in the making however. I started taking notice in its last decade. The first time I heard his name, it was whispered. I was maybe nine or ten, under an umbrella on a beach near Cape Town when someone in the group of families with whom we were holidaying pointed out a grey smudge on the horizon. Robben Island.

Everyone nodded in silence, narrowing their eyes. I was intrigued: A mysterious prisoner on a desolate island, yet near enough to see the lights of Cape Town. I was fourteen when I first saw his face, any representation of which was banned. A grainy photo of a bearded man in a photocopy of a banned book. That was during the First State of Emergency declared by the government. You could be arrested for being in possession of a banned book. Or wearing a T-shirt of a banned organization. You could be detained without trial or access to anyone for ninety days.

He was a terrorist.

Everyone knew that. He had tried to violently overthrow the Government. He had planted bombs at military and government targets.

That's a terrorist. Or is it a freedom fighter?

Once I'd made up my mind to go to Pennsylvania, I of course told anyone who would listen. My male married friends - Obama supporters and Youtube addicts - were envious. And not just for political reasons.

"Should be a ton of cute college girls volunteering, you bastard," one of them said. It had crossed my mind.

When I entered the office however, the campaign staff consisted mostly of young men in jeans and sneakers: smart and charming, they politely excused themselves to take hushed calls on their cellphones. The volunteers were overwhelmingly older women: housewives and working mothers in their forties or fifties from New York City and the suburbs of New Jersey. They wore comfortable but expensive clothes and carried bottled water. Many brought their children, who wore High School Musical T-Shirts and carried snack-packs of pretzels and baby carrots. It's always comforting to be on the same side as mothers and children. How else do you explain the initial wave of adoration that greeted Sarah Palin's anointing? Everyone was thrilled to be there.

"Better than going crazy screaming at the television," someone said.

At most, canvassing for Mandela in white South Africa was symbolic. With whites just four percent of the electorate, an ANC landslide was all but inevitable. However the ANC, true to its proud non-racial history, wanted a mandate that was not polarized by race. They wanted a non-racial consensus which meant as much of the white vote as they could get. So I cut classes, tied back my long hair and went door to door in my neighborhood to try persuade nervous whites to vote for the ANC, to vote their hopes, not their fears, as the poster said. I had to do something. Since the release of Mandela, the "struggle" had moved from the streets to the boardroom. White activists called it "post apartheid blues" with bitter irony. I wonder what we'll all do when Obama moves into the White House and stops emailing us?

Leaving the Bristol office with our list of names and addresses, we were given two key pieces of advice:

1) Never, ever, leave literature in people's mailbox. Don't open their mailbox. Interfering with the mail is a Federal offense.

2) And never engage a McCain/Palin supporter. As soon they identify themselves as such, the correct response is: Thank you for your time. Enjoy your afternoon."

We needn't be concerned, we were told. Bristol had always voted overwhelmingly Democrat.

"What if someone says they're not voting for him because he's black?" someone asked.

The freshly-shaved face of the young man training us froze in a rictus. "Don't engage them. Mark your sheet and move on, okay?"

"Is there a block for "racist?"

"Mark them a McCain supporter!," someone shouted.

The supervisor was calm. "Just check the "Other" box." Other indeed.

I grew up around the semi-casual racism of liberal white South Africans, a colonial contagion in most places and a plague in South Africa. It was not unusual to hear a white South African declare as his political position - "I'm a racist, you see." That was a valid point of view. It was law after all. For the most part within my circle of friends and family however, the conversations around the dinner table before the election were not unlike the conversations going on in what I believe are many American homes today: incredulous young people and nervous parents. Unlike America where race is seldom mentioned and if it is, it's called "the Bradley Effect." all we talked about was race. We called it politics. Thankfully by then, the lethal words - kaffir, coon, munt - were not as they were once dropped into conversation as easily as lint from a pocket. But people voiced the question- "Can a black man run a country?" I couldn't count how many times I'd heard the retort - "Look at the rest of Africa." Many called Mandela a "godless communist" because he talked about the poor. Bill O' Reilly and Rush Limbaugh would have fit right in.

I was paired with Monica and her eight-year old daughter, Ella from the Upper East Side. We smiled nervously at each other and shook hands. "You have an accent, " Ella said. Which reminded me. I asked our supervisor's advice. "So you're an African-American," he said, smiling, after I'd identified my accent. I'd heard the joke before. I should let Monica lead, he suggested. Obama had enough trouble with charges of elitism.

For the first few hours, most of our knocking went unanswered and, disappointed, we spent our energy keeping Ella from peering in through windows or stuffing mailboxes with pamphlets.

When someone opened the door, Monica did the talking and I mostly smiled like a second-string infomercial presenter. When Monica took Ella back to the office for lunch, I was on my own. Out of necessity, I came up with the line.

"Hi. Mrs _____, I'm Shaun. I'm a new American and I'm a volunteer for Barack Obama."
By the time Monica returned, having left Ella at the office stuffing envelopes rather than mailboxes, I'd hit my stride and it had started to rain heavily. I wore a borrowed blue poncho. People started opening their doors. We realized that in this lower middle-class area, many people were coming back from their night and morning shifts. Some of those were setting off again after a shower to their second or third jobs. One young man reported that his sister had cashed in her 401k to keep their house. Yet there were few ringing endorsements for Obama. The best I heard was - "I'm a Democrat so I'll vote for him."

An elderly woman, tight lipped and narrow-eyed slammed the door in our faces, saying.
"We're not voting for him." As we walked away, we heard her husband say. "Obama? Screw him."They were registered Democrats. I wondered if, like me, they watched the Cosby Show many years ago and if so, what they thought of the Huxtables.

A battered, once-maroon Lincoln pulled up beside us on Jefferson Avenue, Monica huddled under her Burberry umbrella and me engulfed in the wet flaps of the poncho.

A thin, older man in his sixties, a Kool cigarette between his one remaining incisor and his lip, dark bags under his eyes, his head unevenly buzzed.

"Ay, whatever you do, don't go knocking on number 546, ok? 546. She's got alzheimers. You'll confuse her, so don't go there. It's my mother. Ok?

Despite the curtain of rain, Bea and I pored over our damp list and marked 546 off, nodding vigorously. "Ok. Ok!"

He pulled off belching oil-smoke from a rusty exhaust before braking suddenly, the car hoisting up its rump with a squeal.

"So waddaya selling anyway?" We perked up. The rain slowed.

In unison we shouted: "We're out here for Barack Obama!"

He looked befuddled before grinning gummily, sticking out his tongue and giving us a thumbs down accompanied by an emphysemic raspberry. He drove off.

We shrugged and looked back at our walk-book.

The brakes squealed again and he pulled over and rolled down the window with a grinding, smoking noise. "I ain't voting for that guy."

Post-graduate thesis moment: The use of the word "that" to refer to the other in racial politics.
Monica and I exchanged glances, thinking the same thing- he's not on our list. We could "engage". We lunged.

"So who you gonna vote for? Mcain?" I noted the change in her accent. His face fell and he grimaced. "I hate that guy." We were incredulous. "So vote Obama. Come on. We need a new plan. Thing aren't that great these days, right?"

"I dunno. He got no experience, you know what I'm saying? He's a kid, for chrissake." Monica dived for the exposed flesh. "Listen, you wanna gamble. How about another four Bush Years?"
He looked uncomfortable but seemed to be enjoying the company, something out of the ordinary on a rainy day in Philadelphia.

It was like being filled with the holy spirit, as soon as the thought entered my mind, I knew it was gold. "Vote Biden."

"Eh?"

We hadn't mentioned the Senator from Delaware all day.

"Vote Biden. Joe Biden. He's gonna be right there beside the guy." I was doing it too. "Joe Biden's been around."

For the first time, the man plucked the cigarette from under his tooth. It was dropping ash into the pocket of his nobbly polo shirt."Yeah. I like Joe Biden." It was like watching the lottery numbers come in. "He's a good guy....."

"...But?"

"This kid is too..., y'know 'inexperienced'."

Desperately I threw out another one. "How old was JFK when he became president?"

"Huh?"

"You heard me. How old was JFK?"

"I dunno. Fifty?"

"Fourty four. Barack is forty eight."

"Yeah...."

"Vote Biden."

"Nah..."

He was slipping away, his clutch too, I was convinced.

"So you agree with Bush?"

"Bush? They shoulda impeached the bum."

"Vote Biden!"

He gunned his engine and smiled.

"We'll see."

Despite the clear majority favoring the ANC, we didn't know in 1994 how things would turn out. Far from the white areas, a civil war had raged for three years between the ANC and Inkatha, fanned, it is now accepted, by black-ops units of the apartheid army and police. Around twenty thousand South Africans died in every one of those three years. Extremist whites were threatening violent insurrection if Mandela won. The second largest party, the Zulu nationalist Inkatha, had still not yet decided to participate in the election or wage war on the winner. I drank tea with white housewives and heard about their desire for a "strong opposition," something that didn't seem to matter to them when ninety percent of South African could not vote.

We walked up a drive to find two teenagers working on an old Datsun. We gave our shpiel and confirmed that the boy in the baseball cap with the skull tattoo on his forearm was one of the registered voters in the house.

"Have you thought about who you'll be voting for on November 4?"

"I ain't gonna vote. Like all them politicians are the same. They're all full of crap. Ain't nothing gonna change."

"I know how you feel. All we've seen the last eight years is corruption and lies. But that's the Bush administration. Barak Obama wants to change that."

"I know but my vote ain't gonna change shit, you know?"

"I think you're wrong there Jimmy. Your vote can change everything."

"Nope. They just gonna steal it again, like they did the last time."

"Well, I suppose that's possible but hey, give it shot. Doesn't take all that much time. Not like you have to study for it anything?"

"I suppose."

We were registering his friend when a short, older man walked up the drive and shouted at Jimmy to get the car level on the drive. Jimmy scowled at his father. We introduced ourselves.

"Obama? No way we're voting for him. He's anti-American, anti-White..."

"Why do you say that?"

"Ever heard of Jeremiah Wright? Louis Farrakan?"

"Senator Obama has rejected the views of both of those men."

"Sure. Now he has."

"So you're voting for McCain."

"I'm not telling you who I'm voting for. I don't like Obama..."

"But why..."

"I don't have to tell you why."

We returned to the office to find the shy, young Asian woman from Brooklyn, narrow glasses and crisp, white shirt, standing outside, screaming obscenities.

"What is wrong with these fucking people? Are they fucking stupid? Don't they know how badly they've been fucked the last eight year? Sarah Palin? Are they fucking crazy? He's got a degree from Harvard Law for christ sakes..."

We shoved her inside. She had been handing out flyers when someone said: "We're Democrats but we'll never vote for a nigger." That can break someone from Brooklyn.

America in 2008 and South Africa in 1994 are different countries, different times. Obama and Mandela are different men and the last thing Barack Obama needs is another comparison to another black leader particularly, despite his recent rehabilitation as a cuddly old man, to a bona-fide, Russian-trained terrorist like Mandela. Yet, in my mind, I cannot escape the comparison: two exceptional black men on the brink of a historical moment and two countries, their global standing, social fabric and economy significantly damaged by years of ill-advised policies, on the brink of a decision: whether to take the high road of inclusiveness, tolerance and compassion or the low road of fear, suspicion and the entrenching of elites. We know how South Africa decided. The world awaits America's decision.