Let's Think

How US election mirrors what just happened in South Africa

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The details differ, but the underlying factors of how the democratic process has just played out in South Africa, have marked similarities to the US presidential election in November.

This phenomenon becomes clear at closer scrutiny of an article by John J Stremlau,  visiting professor of International Relations, University of the Witwatersrand, on The Conversation website.

Observing the US election from Africa, two questions arise, Stremlau observes. “The first, and easy one, is that with the November 8 vote still months away, there will be plenty of opportunities to weigh the candidates’ arguments and interactions.

“The more immediate question is what their campaigns tell us about the strengths and weaknesses of the US democratic experiment that might hold lessons for democracy in Africa?”

He asserts that Donald Trump’s (Republican Party/RP) “strongest supporters are Americans who prefer strong men over strong institutions. Trump is tribal. He is no democrat. He promises authoritarian leadership to an angry majority of Republican Party members.”

In this regard, think Jacob Zuma, his record as president and the ANC with its focus on race-based politics.

Hillary Clinton (Democratic Party/DP) in turn “won the Democratic nomination on a completely different ticket. It included a celebration of American diversity and concessions to a progressive faction demanding greater economic justice.”

In this regard, think Mmusi Maimane and the Democratic Alliance (DA) with its focus on consolidating the middle ground, individual freedoms and free market policies.

Influence of detail

How the details of differences in American voters’ historical experience and those of Africans, particularly South Africans, influence outcomes, is illustrated by the following quote from the Stremlau article: “Achieving greater freedom and equality for all identity groups has long been African democrats’ primary goal. By contrast, American democrats have traditionally been preoccupied with individual rights.” (Our emphasis.)

This results from the fact that America’s 1789 constitutional bargain excluded many citizens – markedly African slaves, important, in spite of being a minority.

 South Africa’s 1994 ‘constitutional bargain’ was exactly the other way round, as it played out in practice. For instance, the concentration on group identity in policies like Broad-Based Economic Empowerment in which individual rights and merit totally get lost.  

“Today on both continents democrats are testing variations of these ideals (individual rights and group advancement). These are experiences they might usefully share,” Stremlau observes.

He then describes how the DP in the 1960s lost a large faction when it passed civil rights legislation. Virtually all the white segregationists who controlled the bloc of southern states quickly turned Republican (and remain so).

“The effect was to further hinder the centuries-long struggle by African Americans for full and equal voting rights.

“In this election Democrats are more determined than ever to advance equal rights for all groups, however self-identified, within constitutionally acceptable limits.

“America’s Democratic Party is now perhaps the world’s most diverse political party. And like most other voters the world over, Democrats cast ballots primarily according to their self-ascribed identities. They do so with an agreed party platform of supportive policies,” he argues.

As to the claim the that the DP is the world’s most diverse political party, judged on the result of the just completed South African municipal elections, the DA may be challenging that title after succeeding in making strong advances on the ANC by rather concentrating on individual rights and shared values and interests than group identity.

On this front the Americans can indeed learn something from the much younger South African democracy.

In, again a reversed similarity, Stremlau notes that during the candidate nomination process in the US there were “striking visual differences between the two US national conventions. Republican delegates were nearly all white. By contrast the Democrats could be mistaken for a meeting of the United Nations, although with more women and fewer suits.”

In South Africa, DA gatherings, increasingly more so than is the case with the ANC, seem to be a much better reflection of South Africa’s diversity.

He also observes that “This same loose coalition of Hispanic, Asian, and African-Americans, plus the young and the well-educated, gave Obama his two terms in the White House.

“Demographically they are America’s emerging majority. Lately they started acquiring proportional representation appropriate for equal standing in America’s evolving version of democracy.”

This also suggests that the resemblances being drawn between Maimane and Obama might be going much deeper than the mere superficial factors like ethnicity and slogans.

And, again judged by the results of and the practical implications of the 3 August results in South Africa, the latter seems to be a step or two ahead of the much older US democracy.

For one, it highlights the importance of the proportional element in local government in South Africa. Maybe, instinctively, that is why the ANC, after the announcement of the results, called the proportional element in the election into question – it undermines their approach of ethnic mobilisation.

by Piet Coetzer

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