A promised land

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg. He recently penned an opinion article that first appeared in Voices 360 on 11 January 2021.

Obama the phenomenon won the Nobel Prize for no apparent reason except; he was a phenomenon with little substance to deserve the prize, which is usually reserved for people and organisations with clear track records in resolving the problems of war and hunger in troubled corners of the globe.

In physics, there is a concept called the dual nature of light. One nature of light is that it is a particle and the other is that it is a wave. It depends on what you do with light, and then it reveals its nature. If you diffract light, it becomes a wave, whereas it becomes particles when it hits a solid surface. This seems very philosophical, but this dual nature characteristic of light describes Barack Obama, the former President of the United States. The two natures of Obama are of him as the phenomenon and the politician. In 2020 I read Obama’s book, A Promised Land.

Obama the phenomenon, chanted “yes we can” and “fired up, ready to go.” Obama the phenomenon won the Nobel Prize for no apparent reason except; he was a phenomenon with little substance to deserve the prize, which is usually reserved for people and organisations with clear track records in resolving the problems of war and hunger in troubled corners of the globe. On hearing that he won the prize, the first thing he asked was “for what?” as he too was surprised by this honour.

The other Obama is the politician. Obama the politician, increased troops in Afganistan instead of reducing them as he had promised. Obama, the politician, killed Osama Bin Laden and Muammar Gaddafi. Obama, the politician, did far less for Africa, the continent of his descent, than George W. Bush. Bush expanded the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) and invested in dealing with HIV/AIDS in Africa through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), still in operation today. The AGOA gave qualifying African countries duty-free access to the American market. Despite all these, Obama is much loved in Africa for no other reason except that he is Obama. Ethnic solidarity plays a significant part in the popularity of Obama in Africa.

What is the legacy of Obama? Donald Trump is the legacy of Obama. When Obama was elected the President of the US, the former Ku Klax Klan (KKK) grand wizard David Duke wrote that this was “the day he lost his country.” This had nothing to do with the ideas that Obama represented, but with his ethnicity. Duke was so extreme that when he ran for Senate and Governorship in Louisiana as a Republican, President George H.W. Bush denounced him. When Trump ran for the Presidency of the US, he received the endorsement of Duke. This had to do with the reversal of Obama, what he represented, and who he was than anything that Trump represented. Duke, an unrepentant antisemite and racist, was willing to overlook the 100% support Trump had for Israel because in the mind of the Duke and to paraphrase Franz Fanon, Obama represented “the wretched of the earth.”

Which Obama succeeded and which failed? If one looks at the achievements of Obama, they are impressive. He came up with the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) that had been eluded by many presidents, including Bill Clinton, who tasked his wife, Hillary Clinton, to develop a health plan. She failed spectacularly. Obama prevented the economy from plunging into a great depression in the aftermath of the housing bubble. He ended the Iraqi war. He supported lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community and supported marriage equality. He saved the US auto industry and opened up Cuba. He signed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act to regulate the financial sector, a difficult task given the Wall Street establishment’s lobby strength.

Given all these successes, how would we characterise Obama? Obama the phenomenon loses and Obama the politician wins. Many people, especially outside the United States, were disappointed by how the Obama phenomenon fizzled out to be replaced by a compromiser who did not significantly push for a much more inclusive and progressive global agenda. This was not entirely Obama’s fault; it was also because the Republicans, who won a majority in the House of Representatives after 2010, were hell-bent on making him a one-term president and made the opposition to his agenda a permanent agenda. This continues until today, with Trump having tried all tricks to repeal Obamacare. These only failed due to internal divisions within the Republican party.

Given all these, what lessons can we draw from the Obama presidency? Firstly, we learn that irrespective of how difficult the situation can be, there is always hope for success. That a black man who is not a typical African American carved his niche and ascended to arguably the most influential position in the world is not something to be taken lightly. Obama is not a typical African American because his African roots (his father was from Kenya) did not come through slavery. He is not an American African (to borrow the terminology of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) because he not an immigrant from Africa, as Trump alleged. This, in itself, makes Obama the phenomenon to be an enduring and exciting concept.

As we Africans face the 1,3 billion people and growing, failed political project ravaged by wars and warlordism in the Congo, the Central African Republic, Sudan, and Somalia, we can draw from the Obama phenomenon that irrespective of the grim reality that confronts us; we shall overcome. Regardless of religious intolerance in African countries such as Nigeria, we can turn the page and create a better Africa. Despite the state resources’ pillaging, as seen in many countries, including in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Nigeria, we can succeed. Obama, the politician, says to us that none of this will come without a fight. Obama, the politician, confronted the hostile Republican congress and won the second term, and achieved great legislative successes.

In many ways, Obama was very hard on himself. He had more stringent expectations for himself and his community. In this regard, he drew the irk of the civil rights leader Jesse Jackson to the point that Jackson complained that Obama was “talking down to black people” and that he wanted “to cut his nuts out.” This indicated that Obama was taking a rigid posture towards the African American people. Talking to African leaders, he severely criticised them for desiring to be presidents for life. He challenged the African elite to amass wealth while they live amongst the sea of poverty. In this regard at the Nelson Mandela Annual Memorial Lecture, Obama said we have to reach a point when amassing wealth becomes “enough.”

Obama was not afraid of making tough decisions, and this cost him much needed support. Even though it did not bear fruits, his tough stance towards the Israeli-Palestinian situation was both loathed and supported by various constituency members. His decision to kill Bin Laden inside Pakistan without informing the Pakistani government drew both praise and condemnation. His boldness to open up Cuba despite the extreme hostility from Republicans and the conservative section of Cuban Americans in Florida after almost 50 years after Fidel Castro took over, demonstrated toughness.

The promised land that Obama talks about is no longer the promised land. It is no longer a model of democracy. Its politics is full of misinformation about the election fraud that cannot be proven. In 2020, Obama’s successor, Trump, even seriously considered Marshall Law to rerun the election at the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Arizona, where he had lost so that he could win. Trump also tried to force the Republican Governor and the Secretary of State of Georgia to overturn the election.

The very practice that Obama was criticising African leaders for engaging in seems to have taken root in the US. The promised land that Obama talks about does not seem to be a beacon of democracy, and, in many ways, it makes democracy looks terrible. However, democracy is too important to be discarded based on the practices of individual leaders or countries. If we have to build a new form of democracy, independent of the American style, let us do so rather than dismantle democracy itself.

*The views expressed in the article is that of the author/s and does not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

prof tshilidzi marwala
Prof Tshilidzi Marwala Vice- Chancellor & Principal of the University of Johannesburg
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