Before you laugh at the US...
Comedian Trevor Noah said if you woke up from a coma on Wednesday morning, you were well advised to go back to that coma. He was capturing the enormity of the US election result, which was an upset in so many ways. Firstly, it was a total surprise. Secondly, it upset people throughout the world, including Americans themselves. Many of them went out to protest after property mogul Donald Trump was announced the winner.
For once, many South Africans stopped feeling sorry for themselves and could rightfully wonder how the US electorate could elect a sexist, racist, bigoted, sexual predator to lead them.
It boggles the mind, honestly. And the comparison that we elected President Jacob Zuma doesn’t quite work. Zuma is a beneficiary of a system that prescribes voting for a political party. In South Africa, if the political party is a major liberation party, whoever is the candidate already enjoys a huge advantage, even before the election starts.
But the local government elections in August have shown us that the days of predictable voting patterns owing to historical loyalties may be coming to an end. The ANC was the first party to feel that pinch, but the trend could well extend beyond the governing party. The DA, which has virtually locked away the votes of minorities – white people, Indians and coloured people – should not be complacent and overconfident.
We can’t even start laughing at Americans when Trump says he wants to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants and build a wall to keep them out. Remember that we, too, do not only dislike foreigners, we actually kill them.
In 2008, more than 60 people died (including South Africans) when there was an eruption of xenophobic violence. It was because, in a struggling economy with high unemployment rates, it is quite easy to blame “others” for your problems.
So, when someone says it is the Zimbabweans and Nigerians who are taking not only “our” jobs, but also “our” women, it finds resonance. Trump triumphed on the back of such disillusion. We are also quite ripe, as a society, to be taken advantage of by populists.
The other unique phenomenon about this particular US election was that Trump was propelled by an electorate that was tired of politicians.
Many Americans have said for years they had been lied to by politicians. Voters would get them a seat in Washington, DC, and then the politicians would promptly forgot about them. They made no distinction between the Democrats and the Republicans. Ultimately, to them, all politicians were the same: untrustworthy.
This explained why Trump beat seasoned Republicans like Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Chris Christie on his way to becoming the Republican nominee.
Americans said they believed Trump had proven his credentials in the private sector and could therefore be trusted to be effective. This is not necessarily true, as Trump received an inheritance of $100 million from his father and his companies have filed for bankruptcy 11 times. Yet, Americans were still convinced that he was way better than their crop of politicians.
There is a lesson for us here as well. This year, one of the major reasons for the ANC’s poor performance in the local elections was that many of its voters stayed away in large numbers. These were loyal, but unhappy voters who could not yet muster the courage to give their votes to other parties.
These are voters who possibly could be swept away by an individual emerging from the blind side claiming that he or she would do things differently.
And, as for race issues, isn’t it surprising to find that there is another country battling with it as much as we do? Trump, who was endorsed by white supremacist organisations like the Ku Klux Klan before the elections, was supported by white people who feel increasingly marginalised in the US. Only 8% of African-Americans voted for him.
Racial voting patterns are still a huge issue locally, with less than 2% of white people voting for the ANC, for example, while supporting a historically “white” party such as the DA.
So, no, before we start cracking up and laughing at the Americans, we need to remove the plank from our eye first.