What's Tony Thinking

After Trump? Look to South Africa


Linda drew my attention to a fascinating article in the January edition of The New Republic.

Author Eve Fairbanks argues that there are many parallels between South Africa’s ex-President Jacob Zuma and our own Donald Trump.

Moreover, the post-Zuma era in South Africa (he was forced to resign in 2017) may offer some wisdom and warnings for America in a post-Trump dispensation.

First, the similarities between Zuma and Trump. Both followed leaders, Mbeki in South Africa and Obama in the U.S. who were refined, calm and cultivated men — if somewhat distant.

And both have surrounded themselves with an ever-changing cast of cronies, who share in the corruption of their sponsor.

Both also play the macho man. In So. Africa where polygamy is legal Zuma has four wives and twenty children. While Trump . . . well, you get the idea.

But there’s more. Both Zuma and Trump spun a populist fog over their corruption, while engaging the disaffected with their blunt attacks on elites.

Fairbanks warning to America stems from what has happened, and what hasn’t happened, in the post-Zuma era. Basically, she says that people in South Africa were so focused on Zuma, on getting rid of him, and so exhausted by that effort, that two unfortunate developments have followed.

One is that they have settled for another corrupt leader, only this one is more refined, appeals to standard norms and avoids demagoguery. Here’s Fairbanks on Zuma’s successor, Cyril Ramaphosa:

“Ramaphosa wears well-tailored suits and avoids any hint of demagoguery, speaking in polished, pleasing sound-bites and steering clear of rowdy Zuma-style mass rallies and the press. He nonetheless took office with a history arguably as damning as any post­apartheid leader. Extraordinarily wealthy, he serves on numerous boards. In 2012, he emailed the board of a platinum mine on which he serves to encourage them to deploy the police against a group of desperately poor miners striking for higher wages, calling them “criminal.” The next day, the police shot 34 miners dead in South Africa’s worst massacre since apartheid’s end.”

She argues, in essence, that South Africans were so eager for someone who wasn’t obviously a thug, that they settled for a still bad-actor, but one who is inoffensive and appears decent.

I have sometimes wondered if a big part of the problem many of us have with Trump is that he’s just such an embarrassment. Would we settle for a person of dubious character if that person were less obviously gauche?

The other warning for American’s in a post-Trump era which Fairbanks derives from the Zuma experience is that Zuma had actually tapped into some real issues facing South Africa, but that those issues have been largely forgotten or ignored in the zeal to force Zuma out.

Zuma had appealed to South African blacks who had come to feel that their plight post-apartheid was no better and in fact worse. Global economic forces had descended on post-apartheid South Africa, extracting wealth but not spreading it. Zuma appealed to those who had been left behind after Mandela and Mbeki had cozied up to wealthy interests.

Are there legitimate issues that Trump has raised that do need to be addressed?

It seems to me there are. One, alas, is border security and immigration management. I don’t like Trump’s solutions, but the issues are real.

Another of course is those left behind in the U.S. by globalism and technology. The people of Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and Hochchild’s Strangers in Their Own Land. Globalism hasn’t been a great deal for them.

A third may be the post-World War II framework of alliances. Even if Trump’s gratuitous snubs of historic allies are dumb and tacky, this system was/ is due for re-evaluation and new terms.

A fourth may be patriotism. Trump has touted himself as a nationalist. There’s a difference to my mind between patriotism and nationalism, but there is an issue here. Who are we as Americans? What bond do we share? In an era of global economics, what are obligations to our fellow American citizens?

When we are thoroughly disgusted with how things are going in whatever setting we might be — a business, a church, a school, a state — de-capitation is a big temptation.

Just get rid of the bum or incompetent at the top and everything will be fine again. Give us a new superintendent, minister, CEO or President. But what Fairbanks argues is that this can become an exercise in scapegoating, i.e. projecting all of our issues and failures onto some target, some evil other.

The New Republic article is a long one, but fascinating. And it does offer sound warnings for us for a post-Trump era, when that does come, whether sooner or later.



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