THE BLOG

Can Obama Hear South Africa's Cheers?

I guess, judging by the social media chatter, radio call-ins and other background noise in Johannesburg today, that most South Africans awoke (we are six hours behind EST) with pleasure to the news of Barack Obama's sweeping, if hard-fought, re-election last night.

There are a number of sentiments behind this acclamation: simply as the most expensive (by a huge margin) electoral contest in the planet and the saturation coverage it received on the satellite tv stations broadcast here, this presidential election was always going to attract a big local following.

Next, there is the issue of identity: although Obama only paid one fleeting visit to South Africa, as a junior U.S. Senator, the stand out fact is, of course that he is half East African and occupies a White House (on which his lease has just been extended for four more years) built, as David Remnick noted in his influential work The Bridge, by ''West African slaves who had no last names or carried the names of their masters." Identity, especially racial identity and shared struggle and oppression, matters in this corner of the world and on this continent. And even if Africa barely featured in the campaign, if at all, there is an affirmation of pride and solidarity in the result, a reaffirmation of the history-breaking election of four years ago.

Then, there is the fact that, despite some thin accomplishments on the foreign policy front at least in Africa, as with the rest of the world there were few local votes for Mitt Romney, whose projection as a predatory private equity super-capitalist, however distorted, hardly matched the mould from which Obama was cast . The 1%-ers have not too many followers in this country, which has one of the highest rates of inequality in the world.

Of course all this viewing of the American election through the local lens can be distorting and misleading. To transpose Al Gore, there is at least one big ''inconvenient truth." And it actually concerns the man who beat Gore in the even more dramatic and disputed election of 2000, George W. Bush. Undoubtedly history and American voters and the world will remember "43" for the several big things he got wrong. But actually, unheralded and often unremembered, he was probably and ironically (given the provincialism in which he shrouded himself and his forays into the Middle East) the most consequential president for Africa: His Prepfar AIDS initiatives put huge resources (more than $15bn) behind the provision and roll out of antiretrovirals, and saved millions of lives. His unflinching support for Congress's AGOA pro-Africa unilateral trade access has been a game changer for African employment creation and sustainability. In tiny neighbouring Lesotho, some 40,000 textile workers have sustainable jobs due to this policy.

So much for the past. Although I cannot forget that four years ago last night I was actually living in Washington, D.C. and working as a visiting fellow at a think tank. On election night in 2008, we celebrated with a party in the attic of our brownstone rental, for a group of visiting South Africans and a few locals.

Watching the drama unfold on the TV screen, it seemed less like political spectator sport, and rather more like a shimmering event of historical redemption. Fortified with the obligatory take-away pizzas and beers, we were all glued to the TV at that around-midnight moment when Obama passed the magic number of 270 electoral votes needed to clinch the presidency and the networks proclaimed him the winner.

I turned away, almost choking on the historic significance of the fact that the next occupant of the White House had an African provenance. I noticed that there were few dry eyes in our TV den as we observed the conjoining of a moment of American exceptionalism with a reminder of its more shameful past.

Last night's result was a little closer and more grinding in its achievement, and with racial voting patterns which would not be unknown in South Africa, except for the reversal of the ratio of black and white and the absence of Latinos here. Still, the hope might be a little faded and frayed in America and the world this time round. But the expectation that a new mandate will lead to its fulfilment still burns pretty bight in this part of the globe.

Subscribe to the World Post email.