Of dead villains and demigods

Today I am jealous of my American friends; of the opportunity they had to “… place their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more to the hope of a better day”. I stayed up all night to watch the events unfold because for me this is the most exciting political event to occur since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the release of Mandela in 1990. I shed a few tears through Obama’s victory speech, high on the feeling that something fundamental has shifted, that we stand on the cusp of major change, that this is an opportunity to be seized.

For many Americans and the vast majority of non-Americans the experience is sweetened by the sense that the Great Villain is no more. The most abrasive, arrogant and intellectually bankrupt American administration in living memory is due to be replaced by a regime promising to be inclusive, liberal and sensitive to the complexity of international relations.

Yet Obama himself urged us to exercise caution: “The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term … there will be setbacks and false starts. There are many who won’t agree with every decision or policy I make as president. And we know the government can’t solve every problem”.

I think it is important that we heed this message amidst the excitement. In the not-so-distant history of South Africa a similar euphoria existed on the back of the peaceful transition to democracy. Through no fault of his own, Nelson Mandela became a near demigod beyond reproach. And a country’s fear of revisiting the mistakes of the past gave birth to a political party which could not be questioned by anyone save those who were willing to be branded backward or racist.

This is not to deny that a lot of good things were done from the outset: Fiscal responsibility, a non-retributive stance and a liberal constitution, to name but a few. So initially the lack of a credible opposition and healthy political debate didn’t matter. The almost miraculous nature of the political change and the personality of Mandela were enough to sustain us. The problem is that such unquestioned utopia can cover up underlying problems. And in South Africa’s case this finally became clear earlier this year when township residents, frustrated with their lack of economic progress, turned on their immigrant neighbours in a misguided expression of their anger.

Again, Obama himself urged that Democrats accept this victory “… with a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress”. The Bush administration’s biggest error was a failure to listen to alternative points of view. We should not repeat this mistake now.

I realise that, based on the infantile campaign ran by the Republicans, it is hard to imagine how they will be able to contribute to a sensible argument at this stage. Yet it has happened before: The Clintons like to take credit for the budget surplus which they left behind, but we forget that this all came about in the mid-90s and that it was the Republican speaker of the house, Newt Gingrich, who provided a lot of the impetus behind the drive towards a balanced budget through tough negotiations with the Clinton administration.

George W Bush is not single-handedly responsible for all the challenges we face today (although he certainly caused or exacerbated many of them). His departure is not a magic wand. It will pave the way for building a global consensus on major issues such as climate change, but It will not, for instance, have a great impact on localised intransigent problems such as European farm subsidies which contribute to the crippling of the developing world; social exclusion and poor education standards in the UK; or tribal rivalries that leady to bloody wars in Africa.

Equally, Barack Obama does not have all the answers, nor should we expect this of him. The danger is that we become complacent on the back of this historical change, and we do nothing. It is especially important that the newly mobilised voters who have contributed to Obama’s victory understand this, so that they do not return to their apathetic ways when the wheels of change grind slowly, as they inevitably will. As for the rest of us, we may notice some important cosmetic changes in American foreign relations, but see little immediate impact in the way of concrete foreign policy (note how the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were given prominence last night, but the war in the Congo wasn’t mentioned).

What happened last night should inspire us all, but if we truly want a new world order we cannot simply sit and wait. I’m confident that an Obama administration will create the environment for change. But to sustain it, each of us has to make it happen. We need to define it and act upon it. And most importantly, we should be open to challenge by those with different points of view! I’m starting on my own little list as we speak.