By Danny Schechter · 5 May 2008
Everyone has a memorable moment or special date that marked their political lives. For me, it was April 27, 1994, the day of South Africa’s first democratic election when a disenfranchised majority chose Nelson Mandela as its new president. To those that fought so many years against apartheid, it was a political miracle, seen almost a biblical moment ushering in a new Rainbow nation.
I had a front row seat 14 years ago inside the Mandela campaign, making an insider film that became Countdown to Freedom: The Ten Days that Changed South Africa. It was euphoric, watching so many people who had been oppressed for so long patiently waiting in line to vote, some for hours. They enthusiastically filled out paper ballots, and before the counting was stopped — a decision made by Mandela’s own party, the ANC, so that the whites would not feel totally dominated — 63 % chose the icon that had been a prisoner as their president.
The excitement that day showed how elections had become a tool in a liberation battle, and it seems like many of the “Yes We Can” Democrats backing Barack Obama feel the same way. Many see themselves in a movement, not just a party, a movement for “a change they can believe in.” Unlike their counterparts in South Africa representing an excluded majority, their candidate is viewed as a minority without the same. Race may have defined South Africa's struggle; Obama is running an uphill battle to make sure it won’t be the determining factor here.
His focus is more on generational issues and a rejection of conventional politics. That's partly what has made this year’s primaries so exciting. Many of Hillary Clinton’s supporters see the election for a woman in similar terms, as almost a transcendent imperative.
There is righteousness and fervor in the campaigning, but the election process itself seems much more orchestrated, cynical and managed with our media stoking up more heat than light at every turn.
The International Herald Tribune described the Pennsylvania primary as even meaner, more vacuous, more desperate and more filled with pandering that the mean, vacuous, desperate pander-filled contests that preceded it.
Is this polarization-driven process what our democracy has degenerated into? Could it be that the very phony staged combativeness — like the World Wrestling Federation event that all the candidates took part in is what we as voters now expect a knock-down, dragged-out, take no prisoners contest in which whomever is left matters more than whoever is right?
I don't want to be a nattering nabob of negativity but it seems clear that our political version of American Idol or Big Brother may be taking our eyes off of the deeper structural crisis that whoever wins will inherit. These are the issues that all politicians don’t like to talk about.
It was that way in South Africa too. Winning political office did not give Mandela, as beloved and heroic as he was, the clout to transform the economic inequality at the heart of apartheid. He ran on the promises of the Freedom Charter to promote economic justice. Once in power, his government launched a policy known as the RDP promising a deep transformation only to be forced, by behind the scenes international pressure, to abandon it for market-driven neo-liberal agendas.
That's why, as that country marks its Freedom Day this year, organizations representing the poor, who have in fact become even more numerous and poorer in relative terms since that election in l994, now see it as a unfreedom day.
Here's one statement of warning from Abahlali base Mjondolo, the South African shack dwellers movement:
Once again we will be asked to go into stadiums to be told that we are free. Once again we will not be going to the stadiums. We will, for the third time, be mourning UnFreedom Day.
Since the last UnFreedom Day we have been beaten, shot at and arrested on false charges by the police; evicted by the land invasions unit; disconnected from electricity by Municipal Security; forcibly removed to rural human dumping grounds by the Municipalities; banned from marching by the eThekwini City Manager; slandered by all those who want followers not comrades; intimidated by all kinds ofpeople who demand the silence of the poor; threatened by new anti-poor laws; burnt in the fires; sick in the dirt and raped in the dark nights looking for a safe place to go to the toilet.
Those are strong words, but I am sure you can find equally angry language right here at home from the families of those being foreclosed from their homes, or kicked out of their jobs, or unable to afford the skyrocketing costs of gasoline and food, or those with a loved one among the two million in prison, or military families dealing with their losses and wounded, or the millions without health care or forced to subsist on food stamps.
The real presidential campaign where anything can happen and probably will has yet to start. Will the new occupant of the White House be able to impose his or her will on Wall Street and the corporate interests who really run things?
Elections have limits; it is easier to promise change than deliver it
If you want to understand these limits, please take a minute out to learn about the trillions in debt that’s been allowed to fester by the free market ideologists in charge of our economic policy. Please take a minute out to think about how the war economy becomes needed to keep the economy going. Please think about all the vested interests who are committed to keeping the status quo in place and how they used media assets they control to distract, disorient and disinform the public.
Hopefully, Nelson Mandela will turn 90 this July. He deserves our respect and admiration for his life of sacrifice and commitment. Alas, none of our candidates seem cut out of the same cloth.
Of all our leaders, he knows what many of us may soon find out — that elections and political compromises do not necessarily transform economies or lead to the kinds of changes we so desperately need in a world challenged by growing poverty, pandemic diseases, climate change, food shortages and economic crisis. Many of these key issues are rarely explained by our candidates or the media.
If you really want change, voting is necessary but not sufficient. We need more than the here today, gone tomorrow, primary spectacles.
And we need a media to tell the truth about what really matters.
Instead there seems to be a media shift way from the questions Obama has been posing into more of the predictable politics of the possible, which, as history teaches, often leads to more of the same.