Thursday, December 30, 2010

Post-apartheid South Africa and the post-Civil War United States

Perhaps the founding moment in US history that's most analogous to South Africa today is not the Revolution and the writing of the Constitution but the Civil War and its aftermath. The writing of the constitution was about constructing a nation, and that was certainly part of what South Africa undertook after the end of apartheid. But it was the Civil War, and the Reconstruction amendments ending slavery and barring racial discrimination, that marked the United States' effort to cleanse itself of injustice -- and that's the central theme of South Africa's transition.

What's troubling about this analogy is that the course of post-Civil War politics in the US did not run smooth. There were real efforts to remake the South, but they ran aground, and meanwhile Washington became the scene of remarkable levels of corruption (as my son Brian reminds me), perhaps partly because the spoils had grown more abundant as the war expanded the role of government, and partly because a new party and new people now had access to the treats Washington offered. My impression is that the Republican Party -- the noble party of Lincoln -- swiftly devolved to emptily "waving the bloody flag" of the Union's Civil War cause. It's possible to see South Africa today as all too similar, with grasping, mercenary politicians wrapping themselves in the slogans of liberation as they pursue their own interests. Perhaps this is one characteristic form of the decline of ideals as they become absorbed in the overwhelming practical business of ordinary politics.

But if that is so, the implications aren't all bad. The end of Civil War idealism in the United States was a deep loss, above all for the cause of racial justice which faded from view for many decades. But this was not the end of politics, or of struggle against injustice. Pride goeth before a fall, and the arrogant wealth of the Gilded Age in the late 19th Century surely contributed to the rise of unions and of modern liberalism in the United States (among other developments), and over a long sweep of time the "arc of justice" for African-Americans became prominent again as well. Perhaps South African politics too will reshape itself into new, and vibrant, movements against the inequalities left from the past and still being generated in the present. Then, happily, it will be clear that the problems of today's South Africa are not signs of looming disaster but part of the often disappointing, yet still profoundly valuable, play of democratic politics.

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