For Africa, this is huge!

November 5, 2008

“Who was the fat lady?” asked my mom, who had walked in near the end of my four-hour watch-snooze election marathon. I looked at her for a second and tried not to get anymore choked up than I already was.

“Well, he got Pennsylvania and Ohio, and then Virginia, but when the networks called California it was all over.” I was pleased that I managed all those words without the frog jumping out of my throat.

But really, the moment when it happened was almost unreal. One second Jeremy Thompson, the main anchor for Sky’s election coverage, was reporting on the latest results with Obama still well short of the magical 270 electoral college votes needed to win, and then he paused, listening to his earpiece.

“One of the US networks has called the election for Obama,” he announced. Then he listened some more. “And so are we” (or words to that effect). The screen exploded in a blaze of confetti-type graphics. “Barack Obama wins the Presidency!” went the caption. The polls had just closed in California (at 5am our time) and the race was already over. Obama wins!

America and the rest of the world are starting to make sense of what that means. For Africa, the symbolic value alone is huge. For a continent that has struggled under the burden of racism for centuries, it is incredibly inspiring. And for the voters who elect Africa’s leaders it means that they too can hope for leaders who embody the leadership qualities of Barack Obama. It’s a nice touch that the two women who had the most important influence in Obama’s formative years were white. In the picture below, doesn’t he remind you a bit of Mandela? I’m sure Madiba must be smiling one of his broad, hugely infectious grins today. The message to Africa should be: Yes we can!



Learning from Obama (Psychology and Politics)

October 8, 2008

Kathleen Parker in The Washington Post put it well. First she likened Obama to Mr Cool himself, Frank Sinatra.

He’s a cat. He’s doesn’t sweat… anything. He is the envy of cucumbers. When everything is collapsing around him — the economy, the Dow, the job market — Obama is perched on the stool like Frank Sinatra between sets.

But then she made the point as to why it seems the majority of Americans are leaning towards Obama for president:

He was at his best projecting the grown-up at the kitchen-table as he answered the question: “How can we trust either of you with our money when both parties got — got us into this global economic crisis?”
Said Obama: “I understand your frustration and your cynicism, because while you’ve been carrying out your responsibilities — most of the people here, you’ve got a family budget. If less money is coming in, you end up making cuts. Maybe you don’t go out to dinner as much. Maybe you put off buying a new car. That’s not what happens in Washington.”

It’s certainly not Obama at his most eloquent but it’s connecting where it counts – on economic issues. It’s a small point with huge implications. Leaders need to understand people’s daily frustrations and keep their cool as they plot a way out of the mess.

But I don’t want to beat the drum for Obama today. I’m interested to bring a psychological understanding of this election campaign. I’ve been reading Adam Phillips’s book on Winnicott and one of the things he says is that mothers need to be able to survive the baby’s rage. The way that the baby tests whether the mother is really trustworthy or not is basically to destroy her (in unconscious fantasy). The baby will throw his/her toys out of the cot, have a screaming tantrum and the mother-figure (which incidentally is often the father too) needs to be able to survive that without shaming the baby into conformity. I guess this stuff is second-nature to most parents in the US and the UK these days but it’s worth repeating.

If, in Winnicott’s terms, the self is first made real through recognition, the object is first made real through aggressive destruction; and this, of course, makes experience of the object feel real to the self. … If the object will not allow itself to be destroyed, and does not retaliate: if it survives the full blast of the subject’s destructiveness, then, and only then, can the subject conceive of the object as beyond his power and therefore fully real.

I think we’ve seen that in this election numerous times. Obama vs Clinton was possibly a decisive turning-point. As much as Clinton tried to destroy Obama, he took the punches and kept going. At the end of an at-times bitter campaign, Hilary had the grace to rally behind her opponent and support his bid. If Obama hadn’t been through the mill, so to speak, would Americans have been able to put their trust in him? Perhaps that’s one of the benefits of the US election system – that it puts the candidates through the wash not just once but many times. (There are obvious disadvantages as well in terms of populism and style over substance but that’s not the point here.)

Politicians can learn something from this – that it is when the electorate really seems to hate you (cf. Tony Blair and the British public) that they are in fact testing you. How will you stand up to the pressure? Will you become all defensive and go on the attack or will you take the “slings and arrows of outrageous fate” and stay on course?

There are numerous implications for South African politics. A large section of the public appears to be really fed up with the ANC at the moment and the party could split into two. How do political leaders in this country deal with criticism and dissent? Do they force people into compliance with the dominant view? Play “you’re either with us or against us” games? Or do we have a robust debate about the problems facing our country and accept the criticism and move forward?

Mbeki as tragic Shakesperian hero

September 22, 2008

President Thabo Mbeki’s shock resignation on Sunday night has me reaching for my Julius Caesar (Act 3, scene 2). I have this image of the noble Caesar (Mbeki) cut down in the forum by the conspirators (Mantashe, Motlanthe, Malema, Zuma et al).

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it….
Here was a Caesar! when comes such another?

I see that Zapiro (our national and increasingly controversial cartoonist) went a far more direct route with his weekly Sunday Times cartoon.

Mbeki gave a good farewell speech – noble, dignified and pleading his innocence while bowing out graciously. Even though he was an aloof, intellectual and decidedly un-empathic president for most of his term in office, I still prefer him over Zuma whom I just don’t trust. Zuma is possibly more duplicitous, saying what people want to hear (business to the business world; socialism to the workers, his Umshini Wam song to the masses) and then doing what he wants anyway. But I guess the masses would say that they love him because he connects with them. They can identify with him.

What was good about Mbeki’s speech on Sunday was that for the first time in a long time, he spoke from the heart as well as from the head. You could see the emotion in his eyes. The irony is that both Zuma and Mbeki have portrayed themselves as victims rather than perpetrators whereas it is their own actions which have got them (and the country) into such a mess.
Antony famously says that “I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth,
Action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech,
To stir men’s blood: I only speak right on”.

Of course the opposite is true. He speaks very eloquently using the “power of speech” to stir men’s blood to rise up against Brutus and the other conspirators. The trick to being a good politician is to speak eloquently but to let people believe that you are speaking “right on”. It’s also a pity that this new Mbeki, the leader who connects with his feelings as well as his considerable intellect, is bowing out.

Update: I see that Alison Tilley over at Thoughtleader has had similar (but also quite different) ideas on the subject of Mbeki as tragic Shakesperian hero.