Capetonians follow U.S. race closely, offer support for Obama

Staff Writer
Monday, November 5, 2012

CAPE TOWN, South Africa – “Michelle Obama ate lunch next door,” bragged a shopkeeper selling an odd assortment of antiques and vintage knick-knacks in the gentrifying Cape Town neighborhood of Woodstock. “They had Secret Service here, in my shop! Can you believe it? And snipers in that building across the street,” he added.
Exclamations like this can be heard around the city when the topic of American politics arises. Capetonians from all walks of life treat the Obamas with a certain air of celebrity.
“The fact that Obama is a black guy plays into the interest shown by regular South Africans,” said Vinayak Bhardwaj, who has lived in Cape Town for nearly eight years. “Not just that he’s a black guy – he’s good looking, suave, et cetera. He connects the way Bill Clinton connected with ordinary people.”
Originally from Zimbabwe, Bhardwaj works part-time for the investigative journalism unit at the Mail and Guardian – South Africa’s premier news source – and follows American politics avidly. His interest in American politics began during his childhood, when the repressive regime of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe censored the media, and his mother subscribed to Newsweek when his family could no longer watch BBC or CNN in their home.
“It’s almost the way we used to follow the royalty in the U.K.,” Bhardwaj said. “We used to follow the goings-on with Princess Diana and all that. It’s the personalities.”
But “most South Africans are not too concerned with American politics,” Bhardwaj said. “I don’t think that the average knowledge spreads any more than knowing that Obama is this nice Democrat guy who stands for nice things but is being blocked by Republicans.”
“Often a lazy analysis of why things aren’t happening in America is that the racist Republicans are to blame,” he added.
On the campus of the University of Cape Town – which considers itself the top university not only in the nation, but in Africa as a whole – campus politics correlate directly with national politics. The campus itself was once a hotbed for political activism. During the apartheid era, anti-apartheid activists often held rallies on the campus’ central Jameson Steps.
But in recent years, “UCT students and students around the world are apathetic,” Bhardwaj said. “But there definitely is a small group following American politics.”
Some students professed to be avid followers of the 2012 presidential election, but others, such as Mfundo Mbambo, a UCT student originally from the Township of Langa in the Western Cape, said he did not follow this election as closely as he did in 2008.
“I was more excited about last election because of Barack Obama, prospect of there being the first black president and the question of how that would change things,” Mbambo said. “This time it’s not so exciting. Barack didn’t live up to what I thought he would be.”
But in this city, with plenty of socio-economic and political problems of its own, taxi drivers and university students alike will immediately regale anyone with an American accent with their most recent thoughts on the U.S. presidential election.
“Obama overpromises and under-delivers,” said a Cape Town cab driver named Omar who considers himself “fairly politically minded” and believes “Obama’s popularity is dropping by leaps,” but couldn’t recall the name of Obama’s opponent.
“Take that ‘binders full of woman’ comment. You’re like, ‘Ah, what an idiot,'” said UCT graduate Jean-Pierre Roux, laughing. “It makes no difference to us really, but for the cause of global feminism I suppose.”
“Nobody I know who follows U.S. politics follows it to see what the implications of one candidate being elected over another will be for South Africa,” said Roux, who is pursuing his masters at Oxford while helping to teach a course on South African political thought at UCT. “They watch it because of the drama of it.”
“I’m a sucker for ‘The Daily Show,’ ‘The Colbert Report.’ It’s great entertainment,” he said. “Definitely the funniest politics ever.”
“It’s analogous to being a fan of British football,” Roux added. “There’s nothing you can do to change anything in America. You don’t have a vote, you’re not a citizen, but you’re quite a fan of the show.”
 “I think it’s also a function of popular culture that we are generally quite enamored of the West and of western political discourse,” Bhardwaj said. “America still remains the global superpower. You can’t but be a bit interested in its politics.”
For some, the lively spirit of the U.S. presidential debates seems to have struck a deeper chord. “To a certain extent, the kind of democracy that America has is something that we aspire towards in terms of the uncertainty around the way the vote will go,” said Sihl Nontshokweni, a UCT student from the Eastern Cape Province.
In a nation that claims to have the world’s most liberal constitution but whose politics since the fall of apartheid have been largely dominated by one party, the African National Congress, some still speak of American democracy as something to aspire to.
“For all its faults, I still think America is the world’s best democracy,” Bhardwaj said.
“It’s a country where Clinton, at the time of leaving office, was more popular than Gore or Bush put together and yet never chose to change the constitution to run for a third term,” Bhardwaj added. “In Africa, that’s unprecedented.”
The fact that U.S. presidents remain limited to two terms indicates “how entrenched American democracy is in comparison with ours and really in comparison to every other place in Africa,” Nontshokweni said.
In South Africa, a country still recovering from the devastating effects of apartheid, American policy toward Israel is important. South Africa recently passed legislation mandating the special demarcation of all Israeli products made on settlements in the West Bank, and comparisons between the Israeli-Palestinian relations and apartheid separation of peoples in South Africa are common.
But many South Africans believe the outcome of the election will have little to no effect on U.S. policy in the Middle East and elsewhere around the world.
When asked which candidate they supported for president, though, the answer overwhelmingly remained the same, despite disappointment with U.S. foreign policy of the last four years.
“It’s like one of those awful deals where you buy one get one free,” Bhardwaj said. “You buy Romney, you get the Republican Party free, and that’s just not what you want for America.”
“Am I the only one who sees through (Romney’s) insincerity?” Roux wondered aloud.
“Definitely O-bee-zee,” UCT student Jesse Twum-Boafo said, speaking of Obama as he is often colloquially referred to in Cape Town. Mbambo nodded in agreement. “I’d still go Obama as well,” he added.

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