Last night, watching the US elections unfold, I was reminded inexorably of the very first South African elections on that country's long march to "liberation."
I lived in Johannesburg for the year preceding the historic 1994 elections that finally ended apartheid, signalled most importantly by universal franchise, and brought Mandela to office.
In the run-up to the election day, there was disbelief, suspicion, and fear. Amongst the Afrikaaners, there was complete conviction that the "blacks" would rise to loot and pillage once apartheid ended. My Afrikaaner boss explained in all seriousness that "it was a long African tradition that house servants would rise up across the land in a pre-planned attack to kill their white masters in their sleep."
On the other end of town, and that is where I spent an awful lot of my non-working hours, there were people hoping against hope that change would indeed come: Xulus, Xhosas, Bustars and so many others: a rainbow coalition of people hoping to finally be able to exercise their right to vote, to count as human beings. And they were afraid too, and with far greater reason. They had lived through the Soweto riots, the police beatings and secret killings, the "morality" laws and ridiculous race determined employment and education laws.
On election day, they told me again and again, they would go to the polling stations. But they were convinced that the SA army, police - at the time still overwhelmingly Afrikaaner - would be ready to gun them down at the poll booths. Yet there was a steely determination: that they would march to their deaths if it were needed in order to insist on their right to vote.
Newspapers were full of interminable copy about potential rioting and violence that would erupt on and after election day. And yet when election day came there was nothing more than an incredible stoicism as millions lined up to vote, most for the first time in their lives. And when the news finally broke of ANC victory, there was joy, tears, disbelief that change had indeed come to the land.
Last night, I felt a strange sense of deja vu: Yes there was more money on display at the elections and at the victory celebrations. People lining up to vote were far better dressed, far more affluent than the millions that I had observed years earlier. The fireworks, the lights, the clothes at the celebrations come at a price that I can not even begin to imagine.
But much was the same. First, the images of long lines along poll booths, reports of people waiting for hours to cast their ballot. The determination of voters who were going to make their voice heard over the din of history. And then that Obama victory speech. The myriad faces filled with joy, tears, disbelief.
Even some of the words in reports as disparate as Salon, Huffington Post and NYTimes are achingly similar. "Hope", "change", "never thought it would be in my lifetime," and of course, "an African-American in office."
It is indeed a momentous day for America, to have elected its first minority president. Let us not doubt that! Just as it was a historic day in South Africa when Nelson Mandela celebrated an ANC victory in the Joburg CBD.
But call me a cynic. Or may be I am just getting old (what a thought!). But I have clear memories of the shining moment of hope and how it was shattered in South Africa. How "change" was blocked and subverted by corporate interests - and yes, many of those are American corporate interests. How despite that historic vote and an African in office, nothing changed in the daily lives of the people who had participated in the electoral process with such optimism. How despite the best intentions, Mandela could do little to bring any real change to those men and women who had looked to him to lead them to a new reality.
And I look back to past Democratic administrations: under the Democrats, America still went to war to serve corporate interests regardless of morality and justice. And it was a Democrat Secretary of State that told the US Congress that "half a million dead children" was an "acceptable price" for serving US interests. Finally, it was a Democrat administration that put "extraordinary rendition" in place.
Yes, the 2008 US elections are historic. Yes, yesterday was a breathtaking demonstration of human will harnessed to political purpose.
But will it mean change? I sincerely hope so! Unfortunately the cynic insists on speaking its mind. And I am reminded of that 1994 day of hope, when millions had hoped for the "change we need" and have since been disappointed.