I spent nearly seven years in South Africa, most of it as the speechwriter for South African opposition leader Tony Leon (who now serves as that country’s ambassador to Argentina).
It was an exciting job, one that allowed me a rare, close-up view of a new democracy, and the challenges it faced. (South Africa’s once-hopeful future is increasingly clouded by illiberal politics, backward economic thinking, and relentless crime.)
I had originally come to South Africa as a Rotary scholar, filled with admiration for the socioeconomic rights in the South African constitution, and the left-wing policies of the African National Congress. Here (finally!) was a government committed to economic redistribution, and a democratic system as devoted to “positive” rights such as health care and environmental quality as it was to “negative” rights such as freedom of religion.
It was through volunteer work in black communities in the squatter camp of Khayelitsha that I began to understand the folly of such ideas. New government programs had merely created new ways for politicians to enrich themselves at the poor’s expense, and new obstacles to individual success. Radical affirmative action policies had gutted the public schools and civil service, hurting the people most dependent on government.
Hundreds of thousands of people were dying because then-President Thabo Mbeki believed that HIV did not cause Aids–and because his central government, defying the federalist model of South Africa’s constitution, tried to prevent opposition-held provinces from providing life-saving medicines. Those who spoke out against the president’s policy were routinely accused of holding the grotesque racial stereotypes.
Working in the South African parliament, I watched as the ruling party turned the legislature into a rubber stamp for the power-hungry executive branch. The party also tried to infiltrate and control every independent public and private institution, including the media and the judiciary.
Those who did not submit became targets for public abuse from Mbeki, who launched personal attacks on individual journalists and corporate executives in his weekly newsletter.
When I returned to the U.S., I found my experiences abroad had made it impossible for me to return to a Democratic Party that had jerked sharply to the left. I had liked fellow Chicagoan Barack Obama until I read The Audacity of Hope, and realized that beneath the superficial guise of a new, ecumenical politics, then-Senator Obama was committed to a radical agenda at odds with constitutional norms and economic common sense.
As president, Obama has behaved in ways reminiscent of Mbeki. There is the same contempt for constitutional checks-and-balances; the same resort to false allegations of racism; the same attacks on private citizens and the media. And like Mbeki, Obama is protected by a largely supine, sympathetic media.
Obama apparently shares the belief of the late professor Derrick Bell that our legal and constitutional systems enshrine white supremacy, and that the only answer–aside from constant racial confrontation–is a radical reform of property rights through the creation of socioeconomic rights such as health care. Likewise, for Mbeki, white racism was an evergreen phenomenon, a sin that only submission to the ruling party could absolve.
Though Obama is more charismatic, both men share common traits. They were both abandoned by ambitious fathers, but enjoyed academic opportunities that opened political doors. They each cultivated reputations as bridge-builders, and inherited proud civil rights traditions en route to power, but each is frequently tempted to indulge in divisive racial politics for political gain.
They each campaigned against wealth while enjoying the good life; they each combine populist politics with intellectual pretensions and personal aloofness; they each built ambitions of global leadership on a vision of a humbler America. And they both bristle at criticism.
Most worrying of all is Obama’s tendency to follow Mbeki’s example of bullying the media, the opposition, and the other branches of government. The president’s attack on the Supreme Court last week revealed an illiberal, almost totalitarian streak–as well as Obama’s ignorance of judicial history.
It was not the first time Obama had attacked the Court–yet with the Court’s decision on Obamacare pending, it smacked of intimidation.
Mbeki liked to warn his opponents by referring to the words of American poet James Baldwin: “No more water, the fire next time!” Unless the opposition bowed to his agenda of race-based redistribution, there would be a wave of angry, even violent protests.
To Mbeki’s great surprise, when those Occupy-style protests emerged, they targeted him and his party, helping to usher him from office before his second term had expired.
Obama is now attempting to manufacture, and harness, public outrage along fault lines of race, class, gender, and so on. But the assault on the rule of law represented by the Occupy movement and the Trayvon Martin protests may be as destructive of Obama’s prospects as it was of Mbeki’s.
There is a political alternative in 2012, however timid, and it is the best–perhaps the only–chance to prevent America’s political and economic decline.