Rising to the Moment

Charlayne Hunter-Gault on the heavy cost of bitter politics on both sides of the Atlantic.

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It's always a bittersweet time for me when I leave my home in Martha's Vineyard for my home in Johannesburg; home being a place where you have people and things you love, as I do in both these places. With some sadness, I say "so long" to friends I drank and dined with or with whom I gossiped during the changeover in a '60s-plus ladies' doubles match. Some are people who attended panels on serious issues like the one I moderated this year for Harvard's Dubois Center titled "Race [Still] Matters."

I say "so long," and I return via a 16-hour-plus flight to Johannesburg where, on the way from the Oliver Tambo airport, I send out a mass text message letting my friends know that I'm back! Back and eager to pick up where we left off a few months back, joyful times not that different from those on the Vineyard.

But this time is different. What I feel as I leave is not bittersweet, but something dark and foreboding that has generated a lump in my throat and a knot in my stomach, mostly because of the bitter brews being served up in the political arena in both the home I am leaving and the home to which I will return.

Let me say there is a lot to feel good about—in America and in South Africa. Without violating the journalists' creed of not declaring publicly for a candidate, I acknowledge this fact without prejudice: Barack Obama's ascendancy is historic and exciting, the most exciting in my lifetime.

Likewise, South Africa's abrupt changing of the guard, for all its problems, comes with assurances from the ruling party that the country will stay on the democratic path and that the government will continue its steady approach to managing the economy (while trying to make it work better for the impoverished masses).

My disquiet arises out of some things that hold out the promise of difficult days ahead.

A recent editorial in The New York Times cited the atmosphere in the hall when Sarah Palin attacked Barack Obama's patriotism by linking him to former Weatherman Bill Ayers. "Ill advised," wrote the Times, about what it described as a "fleeting and long-past association." In response to Palin's assertion that Obama is "right now a close friend of Ayers—and sympathetic to the violent overthrown of the government," a man in the audience yelled "kill him."

The fear I had been fighting and refused to mention, even as many of the people I know spoke openly about it, reached out and grabbed me in my gut, in much the same way that threats by some of the supporters of Jacob Zuma, South Africa's president-in-waiting, had months earlier. If Zuma were to be convicted on the charges of corruption and bribery he faced earlier, these supporters have vowed to "kill." This, 14 years after some 12,000 people were killed in politically motivated violence in one region of the country—the one from which Zuma hails. Back in those days, it was Jacob Zuma who helped stanch the bleeding and heal the wounds, allowing Nelson Mandela to steer his country through the rough waters of still-simmering white resentment.

It is against this backdrop that I am seized with deep unease and concern for both of the countries where I have a home. It is also against the backdrop of the America in which I grew up, witnessing some of its best days and some of its worst. I saw the ugliness up close and personal—and I do mean personal, as in "Kill the nigger" directed at me by men such as the one in the Palin rally. But I also saw Americans of all ages, colors, races and creeds from all over the country get in touch with "the better angels of their nature." Their conviction, and in many cases their courage, helped keep America's beacon of freedom and moral authority shining in the world, using it, among other things, to press for an end to the violent, wretched system of apartheid in South Africa.

But in recent years, as the distinction between American policy and American people began to fade in many parts of the world, including South Africa (and other parts of the continent, as well), I heard hard-to-hear things said about America and Americans, not least that the country and its people have lost their way, their moral authority and their principled leadership. From what I hear in airports and embassies, in taxicabs and on buses, on paved sidewalks in Europe and Asia and dusty roads in Africa, people decrying America's arrogance and its insular self-interest. And yet, what I also hear, sometimes only by inference, is a yearning for America to be what it has been in the best of times, and for Americans to get back in touch with those "better angels" for the sake of democracy at home and abroad. In South Africa today, where freedom fighters are now threatening to go to war, they may listen to the voice of reason from those who helped liberate them and who are setting a good example of how a true democracy functions.