By Charlayne Hunter-Gault
Even with many away during the festive season, reconnecting with their roots or seeking renewal for the year ahead, there were still enough people left in Johannesburg to get together for one reason or another. And when they did, the conversation invariably turned to politics and, specifically, the historic African National Congress (ANC) changing of the guard through the first contested election in more than 50 years. Even with many away during the festive season, reconnecting with their roots or seeking renewal for the year ahead, there were still enough people left in Johannesburg to get together for one reason or another. And when they did, the conversation invariably turned to politics and, specifically, the historic African National Congress (ANC) changing of the guard through the first contested election in more than 50 years. The tenor of the conversation has risen since the indictment of the party's new president, Jacob Zuma, on charges of racketeering and income tax evasion, with many wondering how he will run the ANC if he is busy defending himself against the charges. But his defenders in the conversation are confident that he can and will, as he himself has welcomed the opportunity to have his day in court.
And there is something familiar in the chatter. The intensity and frequency of it takes me back to the historic moment in the US, and how it manifested itself in my other home, Massachusetts' Martha's Vineyard, where people of all races and classes, professions and political persuasions were enjoying their summer vacation. And while there is always an ample supply of fundraisers and panel discussions to stimulate the mind, this summer was different. At breakfasts, lunches, teas, cocktails and dinner parties; while eating sushi or spare ribs; on beaches and in bars, the ground-breaking race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama was the topic of conversation. This conversation engaged African Americans, whose loyalties didn't automatically go to the man who looked like them, as well as those who did not look like Obama, but who identified with him and his promise of a fresh approach to US politics.
Rarely have the issues of race, identity and class been discussed in ways so highly personal and yet of universal interest - with particular resonance here in South Africa (SA), where a new society is struggling to establish some equilibrium with regards to all of these issues. In the Vineyard, even as the weeks rolled by and people began proclaiming weariness of the topic, few changed the subject when it inevitably arose. Maybe it's because I'm now a dual resident, or maybe it's just a matter of the distance, but I never grew weary of the discussion either. It seemed to me that even with the criticism that the US presidential race season had started far too early, the by-product of this was the kind of passionate, engaged and engaging discussion I had not seen in the US in a very long time.
It seemed to me that in addition to everything else, these discussions also served as a kind of healing balm to the post-traumatic stress resulting from the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the US response that has challenged much of what we thought America to be. Americans, to me, seemed different after that. I don't know if it was fear, or a kind of chastening or a coming-of-age in a new world about which they were mostly ignorant or had been lied to, but I felt it, even when I didn't hear it spoken. Something had changed inside Americans and they were still grappling with what it was and how to deal with it. Until something came along to change even that. A Black man and a woman running seriously, as never before, to become leaders of the most powerful nation on earth, flaws and all. And Americans were paying attention as never before, even when there was little on the table other than the uniqueness of color and gender to talk about.
The summer chatter on the Vineyard made for an exciting time, not unlike these past few weeks in SA after the ANC conference and the contested leadership. As I sat on the floor in front of the podium at the ANC conference in Polokwane, I experienced déja vu. Having been in and out of SA since the dark, violent apartheid days of 1985, and havin