(The Root) — In the last few weeks before the U.S. presidential election, it seemed as if every time I opened my mouth, a South African stranger initiated a version of the same conversation: "Do you really think," a woman said to me as I browsed through vintage couture at her Johannesburg shop, "that that idiot is going to win?"
And here I thought Americans were the ones who are supposed to be loudmouthed and opinionated. There is really no way to answer this question and come out unscathed. So I just fell back on the dumb-American stereotype. "I'm sorry; which idiot?" was my usual reply.
These days, South Africans are sometimes considered left of left. The Communist Party holds seats in Parliament. It's no secret here that people love Barack Obama — and that seems to include South Africans of all backgrounds. City Press editor Ferial Haffajee even gave the U.S. president the highest praise one can possibly give in this country when she described Obama as "a bit like a Mandela for the 21st century."
During such discussions, I have mostly managed to politely extricate myself with journalistic impartiality intact — and before my interrogator has the chance to give me grief about being from Texas. What I can't figure out for the life of me is why people care about the election.
Over coffee the other day, a friend harangued me for half an hour about Mitt Romney's stance on abortion, and his belief that a Romney victory would be catastrophic for women's rights. Why, I wondered, would a 50-year-old man living in South Africa care about my future reproductive rights?
Romney and Obama, I noted, mentioned Africa the same number of times in their final debate: It was once each. Romney mentioned South Africa specifically — but in reference to apartheid. U.S. policy toward sub-Saharan Africa hasn't substantially changed in a decade. And, I remind my African friends, there are plenty of domestic issues to tackle.
Plus, Obama didn't mention Africa at all in his victory speech — unless you count the passing reference to "people in distant nations … risking their lives right now just for a chance to argue about the issues."
Foreign Ministry spokesman Clayson Monyela was one of the many prominent South Africans tweeting madly on election night. That was quite a commitment, since it was election morning for South Africa. After the victory speech — during which he tweeted simply, "Damn! What a guy!" — I asked Monyela why people here care and why Obama is their man. He started with the obvious: "For Africans in general, not just for South Africans, there will always be this affinity towards him. He's seen as one of them."
But, he said, the affinity extends beyond the man himself. "In South Africa's context, even during the fight against apartheid, there were three friendly Democrats who were in leading positions who contributed and were actively part of the struggle," Monyela told The Root.
I'm used to being an American abroad, but this positive reception is new to me. I've lived overseas since 2005, and my first port of call was Iraq, where people had no trouble telling me what they thought of our country and our president. When I lived in Germany, people sneered at the mere mention of George W. Bush's name. And when I lived in Ethiopia, a young lawyer friend once suggested that Americans overthrow Bush. As in, stage an actual coup d'état.
It was the only time I have lost my cool over politics, and the hot little speech I delivered would have made my high school history teacher proud. "Say what you want about the man," I said righteously, "but have some respect for the system."
I honestly cannot imagine having this level of vim for any other nation's politics, and I've covered a number of foreign elections. With apologies to my British friends, I never much cared whether David or Ed Miliband was chosen to head the Labour Party.
In fact, I wouldn't dare offer an opinion, lest I be accused of being an imperialist. I've strenuously maintained a level of studied disinterest in all things political. (And so did South African President Jacob Zuma. He was careful before the U.S. election to avoid picking a winner, but as soon as the results were announced, he promptly sent Obama a congratulatory note, Monyela said.)
But I have always been touched by the level of interest — from experts and ordinary people alike. Shortly after Obama's speech, I spoke to one such "ordinary" South African. James Satekge makes recycled furniture out of old railroad ties from his tiny, cramped workshop in a downtrodden part of Johannesburg.
Satekge immediately launched into a concise and elegant analysis. He quickly outlined what he said were his two key issues — the U.S. economy and climate change — and called on Obama to urgently address both. These two issues, he said, directly affect him.
"A lot of my customers, they are coming from the U.S., from Britain, from all over the world," he told The Root. "If they do well, they buy my furniture. If they don't do well, they don't buy. If they do well, we will do well also."
I was surprised and utterly charmed. And here I have to admit the one occasion when I have shamelessly exploited American politics. I found myself on Election Day 2008 traveling as a reporter across the border from Rwanda into the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I was hoping to cross without hassle. "Madame," said the Congolese border agent, "est-ce que vous-êtes journaliste?" ("Are you a journalist?")
So much for no hassle. "Oui," I said with a sigh.
But before I was directed to a small waiting room, I overheard a name on the radio. "Do you know," I said, "that I am American? And that today is Election Day?"
"Le jour de Barack Obama!" he said: the day of Barack Obama. "Well, well," I said, "we don't know the results yet."
He glared at me. "Do you really think," he said, "that that idiot [John McCain] is going to win?" A day later, as I was crossing the front line between the government soldiers and rebels, the rebels stopped us. I tried to charm them with my limited French. Turns out they didn't speak any. (Congo has long accused neighboring Anglophone Rwanda of supporting rebels in eastern Congo.) The two young men, named Peter and Andrew, were reluctant to let us pass.
At which point I said, "By the way, have you heard? Barack Obama won!"
Andrew, the rebel captain who, by the smell of him, had been in the bush for weeks, and whose young face was lined with dirt and war, cracked a rare smile. "Really?" he said, handing me a cigarette and a skewer of charred meat. "Congratulations!"
Anita Powell is a Johannesburg-based journalist who has covered Africa for five years and Iraq and Afghanistan previously. Follow her on Twitter.