What South Africa can learn from Trump’s election


President Jacob Zuma. Source: SABC.

I know, who wants to read this kind of blog post on a Friday, right? It’s almost the weekend! But as we South Africans face a new day after yet another failed “no confidence” motion in parliament against President Jacob Zuma, I think we’re in a good space to learn something about Trump’s election win in the US earlier this week.

Zuma and Trump are comparable in many respects. Both take a dim view of women – Trump has admitted to sexual assault and faces fresh charges this December, whereas Zuma was acquitted of a rape charge back in 2005 (he admitted to consensual sex with his accuser). Both men are known to be egotistical and morally corrupt. Both are backed by strong political parties who seem content to endorse them as long as it means they remain in power. Both are extravagant populists who win favour by saying what people want to hear. In the US, that rhetoric is mostly anti-minorities: anti-gay, anti-Islam, anti-women. In SA, it’s promises of houses, job creation, land restitution and a heavy reliance on the ANC’s glory days when they became South Africa’s first democratically elected government in 1994.

Perhaps we South Africans should have been less surprised that someone like Donald Trump could win. After all, we have a president who has survived the smear of major corruption – most recently a damning report by former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela. We know Zuma is running dodgy deals with people like the Guptas and that cabinet positions are for sale. We know he built his massive homestead, Nkandla, with state funds and probably isn’t paying any of the mandated money back. We know he is compromised in every sense of the word… Yet Zuma remains. And we’ve grown weary of his parasitic resilience, accepting it as a fact – which it shouldn’t be, by all measures of sanity – rather than as a variable.

Reactions to Donald Trump’s election by those who voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton have ranged from shock to anger and fear. But as we move past day two of Trump, as we read the shocking racist incidents Trump’s election has already spawned, we also find that there’s a heightened sense of resolve among those people his presidency most threatens, and their allies. There have been protest marches both nights since his victory was announced, and people are already canvassing for the US Senate elections in 2018. It would be easy to dismiss these actions as purely reactionary, and only time will tell of the longevity of this movement. But there is actually a backlash, and that’s something South Africa has lost.

In her concession speech, Hillary Clinton quoted Galatians 6:9: “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” We South Africans have grown weary of doing good. It’s not hard to understand why. People like Jacob Zuma and his cronies, people corrupted by greed and power, people who abandoned their voters in favour of self-enrichment and who betray the ideals they fought many years for against the apartheid government – it feels like they’ve won. They aren’t held accountable, though heaven knows it’s not for lack of trying on the part of people like Thuli Madonsela. And yes, perhaps, for the moment they have won – like Trump. But we don’t have to accept their temporary victory as permanent, and it’s telling that they want us to.

If a country as diverse as South Africa has one defining quality, one unifying trait that we can all lay claim to, despite our differences in race, creed and culture – surely that trait must be tenacity. The native people survived the colonialists and the colonialists the British. We survived the transition from apartheid to democracy. And our pigheaded country, which has resisted all efforts to comfortably define it or predict its future course, will survive Zuma. Not always because we want to – but because we have to.

While Americans accept their new president, most aren’t accepting the status quo. They have perfected the art of the backlash. It’s high time South Africa rediscovered this art and put it to good use. We cannot accept the status quo Jacob Zuma wants to institute. He is, at the end of the day, just one man, even if he has taken pains to surround himself with people who are just like him. And while he may be stubborn, he isn’t more stubborn than the whole of South Africa put together.