Foreign Policy Blogs

Early South Africa Observations

Artist Ouzin puts the finishing touches on a painting honouring the upcoming visit by U.S. President Barack Obama to Dakar June 24, 2013. Obama and his wife Michelle will visit Senegal from June 26 to June 28, before travelling to South Africa and Tanzania. Senegal's President Macky Sall is pictured on the right of the painting. REUTERS/Joe Penney (SENEGAL - Tags: POLITICS SOCIETY) - RTX10ZHD

Artist Ouzin puts the finishing touches on a painting honouring the upcoming visit by U.S. President Barack Obama to Dakar June 24, 2013. Obama and his wife Michelle will visit Senegal from June 26 to June 28, before travelling to South Africa and Tanzania. Senegal’s President Macky Sall is pictured on the right of the painting. REUTERS/Joe Penney (SENEGAL – Tags: POLITICS SOCIETY) – RTX10ZHD

I arrived in South Africa yesterday after a week in London. Wouldn’t you know, I effectively skirted jetlag in the U.K., then after an overnight flight here on which I was unable to sleep, I arrived yesterday at a bit before seven in the morning. It took a while to skirt traffic and get to my lodging, and that was all she wrote. I read newspapers for a while and then did that dumbest of things: I slept from late morning to early afternoon. And that’s all she wrote for being on a normal, adult schedule.

Nonetheless, I have had a lot of time to read and watch local news and listen to local radios and of course talk to people. Here some of the early issues and observations that I have about them:

Madiba: The biggest news right now is a macabre Nelson Mandela hospital watch. Mandela has been in hospital in Pretoria for about three weeks now, and in the last hour or so it appears that things have gotten worse. Jacob Zuma has canceled a trip to Mozambique for a meeting. His family has told the media that things don’t look good. Mandela is “dangerously ill.” The 94-year-old former president long ago took on the mantel of secular saint. There may well be sad days ahead in this country, but the mood really ought to be celebratory as well.

ANC/Agang/COSATU: Naturally, political news in South Africa centers around the ANC, but also on its discontents. I always find fascinating the static view that so many in the media and the opposition try to portray the ANC as monolithic and therefore its dominance as indicative of one-party rule akin to what exists elsewhere on the continent. Yet many of the important divisions happen within the ruling party (which just removed its parliamentary whip) as anyone who has ever followed a party conference or indaba knows.

Recently, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) is showing signs of real fraying at the center, with disputes over whether certain COSATU leaders are too loyal to ANC interests rather than to the unionists. Because of the COSATU role in the ruling coalition, these divisions are especially telling. I have long argued that the most serious challenge to the ANC would come when the trade unionists and the Communists decide to break away from the Tripartite Alliance.

Perhaps accelerating that process will be the emergence of Agang, the new political party being rolled out under the leadership of Mamphela Ramphele, former Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, one-time managing director of the World Bank, and Black Consciousness stalwart (and widow of B.C. and anti-apartheid hero Steve Biko). Ramphele and others responsible for Agang have been smart, not rushing the party into the media, not insisting at starting off at the top of the political dialogue — basically doing everything that COPE did not do and not doing most of what that once-heralded new party did in its splashy but ultimately empty debut. We know relatively little about Agang’s politics and ideology, but it appears that the new party is going to focus on good governance, on forging political alliances, and on providing a real alternative to the ANC and its shortcomings in areas such as education, health, corruption, as well as its seeming inability to master the economy. Perhaps most vitally Ramphele has talked about reaching out, including to COSATU. Were the unionists to embrace the new party, we might be looking at a game changer. Or we may be looking at the splintering of the union movement that has always been to a large degree a proxy for a trade union political party.

Obama’s visit: President Obama is in Senegal today but will soon arrive in South Africa on a much-awaited visit. There is a good deal of discontentment about Obama among South Africans and indeed across the continent. Many see him as representing little more than a continuation of American imperialism. And yet like those on the left in the U.S. who have been frustrated with Obama, it is also clear that people he want to like him and want to see him succeed. Certainly people see his trip to South Africa as conveying something of a special relationship between this country and the U.S. And many observers believe that the trip’s status as a “working visit,” as opposed to a “state visit,” shows that South Africa is a respected partner, as it means that Obama is willing to come he on South African terms. I’m not certain how important this is in reality — and if Mandela’s health continues to go south this will prove to be a highly symbolic trip for the Obamas — but I’ll note that such an interpretation provides a malleability and benefit of the doubt that South Africans never would have displayed toward President Bush, whom most here loathed. Realistically, Obama’s policies toward South Africa and the continent as a whole have differed little in their particulars from Bush — and Bush’s AIDS initiatives deserve considerable praise — but as with so much connected to Obama, the United States, and the world, appearances really matter. Wherever Obama has fallen short, in the eyes of South Africans as in most of the world, America has undergone a redemption, and Obama is seen as the driving force for that redemption. We can argue the merits of that interpretation, but it seems to me impossible to argue that perception.

Spying: The various manifestations of the spying story have become big news here as well — not only the U.S. and the British spying on their citizens, but also their spying abroad and South African government spying on South Africans. There are two issues here. The first is the rightful concern and outrage over the scope and scale of domestic spying. But the second is a more naive outrage, or at least feigned shock, of the fact that Americans, Brits and South Africans are represented by governments that spy abroad. Anyone who needs a fainting couch for this news probably needs to avoid engagement with the outside world because they a clearly not equipped to live in that world. The real shock would come were we to discover that such spying is not happening.

Zim: I’m off to Zimbabwe tomorrow, so the real news will start then when I try to get a feel for the political climate there. But I can say that the biggest news coming from Zim is all about the elections. Not to go all Tom Friedman on you, but my taxi driver yesterday is from Zim. While he is disenchanted by politics, his biggest concern comes in that where once he could work in S.A. and then have money both to send back home and to visit occasionally, the stabilization of the Zim economy, coupled with the use of the U.S. dollar as the foundational currency, means that trips to Zim have become losing gambits for him. Let’s hope I’m allowed to see for myself starting tomorrow afternoon.



Derek Catsam

Derek Catsam is a Professor of history and Kathlyn Cosper Dunagan Professor in the Humanities at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. He is also Senior Research Associate at Rhodes University. Derek writes about race and politics in the United States and Africa, sports, and terrorism. He is currently working on books on bus boycotts in the United States and South Africa in the 1940s and 1950s and on the 1981 South African Springbok rugby team's tour to the US. He is the author of three books, dozens of scholarly articles and reviews, and has published widely on current affairs in African, American, and European publications. He has lived, worked, and travelled extensively throughout southern Africa. He writes about politics, sports, travel, pop culture, and just about anything else that comes to mind.

Areas of Focus:
Africa; Zimbabwe; South Africa; Apartheid