Category Archives: U.S. Politics

Where is America headed?

The U.S. Capitol, home of CongressThis is my last blog as “Watching in Washington”. This is so for two reasons: I’m moving on (I want to tackle a longer-term writing project), and my family is moving from Washington D.C. back to Asia. Thank you very much to those readers who have journeyed with me and encouraged me along the way.

It seems fitting to use the last blog in this format to share some concerns and impressions regarding the United States.

The United States is in transition, I feel. Either its fractious, hyperbolic partisan politics will revert to the more moderate, centrist, longer-term and broader-focused approaches of the past, or the ideological, “party above country” pettiness of the present will degenerate even further. Idealistic me hopes that the former tendencies re-emerge; realistic me, sadly, sees the latter inclinations in fact becoming yet worse before they change for the better.

This is disturbing, to say the least. The United States is presently damaging itself more than any external state or non-state actors are hurting it. The inability to agree on how to address America’s long-term, structural challenges—never mind short-term issues—is crippling. Particularly since there is broad agreement, for example, that tax and entitlement reforms are needed to strengthen the U.S. economy. Of course, the tricky part will be negotiating the details, but there is widespread consensus on many aspects of the needed reforms to the tax code and entitlements. The problem is the inability to structure a political deal due to the ideological extremes in both the Democratic and Republican parties. Extreme ideological spin on all attempts to address such core problems keeps destroying sincere reform efforts.

How will these dynamics change? Americans could use the ballot box to reject emphatically those office holders who don’t perform in the national interest. But they haven’t shown the inclination to execute a full-blooded housecleaning or “swing” election. Why don’t they?

Typically blamed are gerrymandered electoral districts weighted to a particular party. Gerrymandering reinforces “group think”. Coupled with this is the unfortunate tendency of Americans apparently choosing more and more to live with those who are likeminded, thereby creating alarmingly homogenous residential areas. The “echo chamber” effect of listening or watching media that reflects already established views feeds into this narrative too. These trends are also accompanied by increasing apathy and unwillingness to actually vote.

Different remedies are being proposed and variously implemented by states. California has enacted the boldest plan to redraw electoral districts. It created a nonpartisan, independent redistricting board of citizens who were not allowed to be associated with, or related to, elected officials. The number of electoral districts has not changed through this effort, but their boundaries have changed dramatically. In the 2012 election, 26 percent of the seats in the state’s congressional delegation changed hands due to increased competition in redrawn districts. Other states that have adopted redistricting reforms include Arizona, Idaho, Iowa and Washington.

Another technique that moderates outcomes is allowing open primary elections in which voters belonging to any party can participate. In Mississippi, for example, black Democratic voters supported moderate U.S. Senator Thad Cochran in the Republican Party’s primary runoff in which he defeated Tea Party challenger state Senator Chris McDaniel. The director of the group that funded the outreach to Democratic voters defended their actions, saying that they weren’t “looking for Democrats to vote for Cochran, but … Cochran supporters who didn’t vote”.

Adoption of redistricting and open primaries would help change the dynamic, so one should feel encouraged by their adoption in various states. Interestingly, the Republican Party is resisting both redistricting and open primaries—because it finds electoral success in the narrow, homogenized worlds of gerrymandered districts and closed primaries. The Republican Party’s resistance to broadening participation by redrawing electoral districts and opening up primary elections underscores its challenges in moving beyond its narrowing base of older, whiter and wealthier American voters.

This dilemma also highlights the Republican Party’s difficulties with immigration reform. Like tax and entitlement reform, immigration reform is another critical area chronically overdue for action and solutions from U.S. political leaders. But it is a wedge issue like no other for the Republican Party. Different wings of the Party have dramatically divergent views on how to address the issue. Yet it is essential for the U.S. economy and society at large that the laws governing immigration be updated and modernized to reflect the changing realities of the U.S. economy and present immigration trends into the United States. Not addressing current immigration bottlenecks—underscored by the drama presently playing out on the U.S.’s southern border with the influx of children from three Central American countries—limits economic growth. But the adoption of immigration reform would likely weaken the Republican Party since many beneficiaries would be Hispanic-speakers who lean Democratic. The Republican Party is, of course, reluctant to cede any perceived advantage to the Democratic Party.

So I have come full circle. My first blog some 32 months ago was about the need for immigration reform. It is depressing that there has been virtually no progress on the issue in the intervening months; indeed, one could argue there has been regression.

Views of Congress are at an all-time low. Could the upcoming mid-term elections this November see a categorical anti-incumbent swing vote without more electoral reform by states? Maybe. One has to hope. Certainly, if higher numbers of Americans actually participated in the electoral process, outcomes would be different. But one can’t blame people for being turned off by the present tenor and style of debate. Moderation, pragmatism, and common sense must be restored to U.S. politics; the vitriolic ideological hyperbole must go. In their every-day lives, Americans generally appear thoroughly sensible, practical, tolerant, and down-to-earth. America’s political leadership should reflect these dispositions.

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The freedom of information

Brookings seminar on Japan in AfricaWashington and the United States are deeply polarized. Those holding liberal or conservative views increasingly live in echo chambers in which media and other sources of information typically reinforce already established views. In addition to being more parochial, media also seems increasingly superficial and less nuanced as the Internet and television present news and information as “infotainment”.

This bias and superficiality is especially ironic in Washington since it is a city with incredible competition in the market place of ideas. Indeed, there is a complete glut of information sources here. Ease of access to high-caliber information, informed debate and knowledge is a defining characteristic of living in Washington. Policy-oriented think tanks rather than academic institutions create much of the information; their practical orientation is appealing. Scholarly information is certainly available, but it is more confined to university campuses and less accessible to broader society.

Ten days ago, the venerable Brookings Institution, for example, offered a fascinating half-day seminar on Japan’s reinvigorated approach to Africa’s economic development. Attendees learnt intriguing details such as the fact that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe allotted twenty minutes a piece to meet individually with each of the 39 African heads of state who went to Japan for the recent TICAD V conference. This impressive and revealing time commitment from the Japanese premier underscores Japan’s new approach to Africa. Imagine President Barack Obama similarly according each African leader equal “face time” during the upcoming U.S.–Africa Leaders’ Summit to be held here this August? It is unthinkable. African leaders are, of course, being courted by the United States and Japan in direct response to greatly expanded Chinese influence on the continent. Whatever the motivation, this African, for one, is gratified that Africa is at last receiving greater world attention.

Attendance of an event such as the Brookings seminar on Japan in Africa is typically free. Anyone can sign up to attend through the Brookings’ website. In this case, fellow attendees included U.S. government officials focused on Africa, foreign diplomats based in Washington, staff from international organizations and NGOs, private-sector representatives, contractors, academics, students, and retirees and other interested individuals. Complimentary coffee and tea is usually available. As this event was longer than the more usual 90 minutes, a complimentary lunch was generously served for all attendees, providing the opportunity to chat and “network”, to use that overworked Washington term. It is probably fair to assume that the government of Japan or Japanese companies hosted the lunch.

It would be exhausting to trawl the websites of the major think tanks regularly to keep up with their imminent seminars and guest speakers. Helpfully, most institutions with this type of programming allow people to sign up on their websites for email notification of upcoming talks in one’s selected areas of interest. A portion of the programs that think tanks offer are also available for viewing on the Internet, either live through a webcam or live streamed in audio.

Attending these types of lectures, panel discussions, or seminars is also a helpful way to get personal impressions of key actors in diverse areas. For example, I heard Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, a potential contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nominee; speak on the post-Hurricane Katrina focus on charter schools in New Orleans. It was similarly illuminating to hear Mark Warner, Virginia’s Democratic senior U.S. senator who sits on the Senate Finance and Budget Committees, discuss the budget battles on Capitol Hill.

Another personal favourite for broadening understanding and appreciation of an issue is hearing authors speak about their recently published books. There are ample opportunities to do so here, since stopping in Washington and having at least one public reading seems to be “de rigueur” for newly published authors. Bookstores like Politics and Prose (which the Washington Post recently described as “the showcase for D.C.’s literary intelligentsia”), Busboys and Poets, and Barnes and Noble constantly offer the chance to hear authors. The talk featuring Katherine Boo, author of the powerful “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” about life in a Mumbai slum, was very poignant. My children greatly enjoyed the musings of Irish author Eoin Colfer at another such event. The annual National Book Festival, a celebration with nonstop talks by authors held—until this year—in big tents on the National Mall, is another joy. Attending a reading and insightful question-and-answer session with Afghan writer Khaled Hosseini is a treasured memory from last year’s Book Festival.

Public libraries here are exemplary. The range of services they offer, all free to residents of that particular county, is incredible, so it is not surprising that these places bustle with activity. I have enjoyed visiting area libraries for their speakers’ series. An eloquent talk by “Cutting for Stone” author Abraham Verghese was inspiring. His talk drew many from Washington’s Ethiopian and Eritrean communities, tellingly suggesting that he accurately described their challenges and diaspora.

Some venues typically only hold ticketed events. But the number of free events held in Washington that any member of the public can attend is breathtaking. Visits to the numerous Smithsonian museums on the National Mall are also free.

So, amidst the sharp, often disingenuous discourse too well exhibited in Washington, the yearning for more substance, common sense, and evidence-based understanding can—ironically—be well satisfied here. Thoughtful presentations at think tanks and inspiring discussions on literature offer reassuring counterpoints to the shrill ideological content of political discourse and the popular media. It is not a zero-sum game; we all win when we better understand each other. Is it not possible for Americans to get out of their ideological silos and rise above bitter and divisive politics, and see the world more broadly than the present narrow parochial ways? This is sadly not likely. There are mid-term elections this year and the presidential election in 2016.

Fun with facts

U.S. Supreme Court, with the Library of Congress While tourism to Washington is a year-round phenomenon, visitor numbers always spike dramatically and very noticeably as the city explodes into the exuberance of spring. It is no surprise that people want to visit Washington in spring—the city is simply gorgeous now, with splashes of colour reemerging everywhere after the drab monotones of winter.

At any time of year, visitors to Washington head to the National Mall to experience the nation’s treasured monuments, memorials, statues, and museums. In spring, visitors especially flock to the Tidal Basin to exult in the luxurious blossoms of the cherry trees famously encircling it. Even cynical Washington hacks and jaded longtime residents can surely not help but be stirred by the magnificence of these scores of trees in their glorious, annual bloom.

Those who live in the Washington metro area do become blasé about their proximity to the many world-famous attractions. Those who grow up here can be particularly nonchalant about the renowned sights or symbols of U.S. power in their midst.

So how would one excite a bunch of local, middle-class school children about a field trip to Capitol Hill? More likely than not, most would probably have been there before, and many perhaps a few times. Some would have parents or other family members working there, so they may be especially familiar with the place. How could one inspire such students for this school trip? Well, one could turn the trip into a treasure hunt, that’s how!

A four-hour “scavenger” or treasure hunt was the novel formula that my daughter’s school used earlier this month to experience the grandeur and history of some Washington institutions. The hunt was part of the students’ U.S. civics class. And what a fun way to engage with the civics curriculum! Dozens of parent volunteers were sought to escort the students in small groups for the hunt, and I stepped forward too to help.

This scavenger hunt was not a race to complete the pages-long questionnaire given to each small group. The questionnaire provided the context for interacting with our surroundings. It was the means through which to enjoy the experience, rather than the questionnaire’s completion being the end itself. Indeed, it would not have been possible to fill it all in the allotted four hours. Looking for the details suggested by the questions led to observing minutiae about the various buildings and appreciating aspects of their architecture and history. The constitutional roles of the institutions had clearly been deliberated in class in the preceding months.

The questionnaire sent groups to the U.S. Supreme Court, the office buildings of members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, the U.S. Capitol and its visitors’ center, the Library of Congress, as well as a nearby park and some statues. With the exception of a suggested time slot for the U.S. Capitol Visitors’ Center (for crowd control purposes), each group could tailor its own experience and explore the particular interests of its members.

The questions were sufficiently detailed that one wouldn’t realistically know most of the answers without physically going to that specific location. For example, the section on Virginia’s two senators asked questions about items hanging on the walls of their offices. Without going to his actual office, how would one possibly know what is portrayed on at least one of the two Virginia maps in Senator Tim Kaine’s office?* Or with which British Royal family member he is photographed?** His office staff was fabulously good-natured and friendly when the group I was chaperoning stopped by. I imagine they were that way with all the other troops of teenagers who traipsed through their office that morning. But it must have been testing and disruptive too. This dynamic was repeated across the offices of many Virginia legislators on Capitol Hill that day.

There were, of course, security checkpoints to enter each building, which slowed the pace a bit. Students were forewarned to avoid wearing belts and jewelry that day to facilitate passage through these chokepoints. Overall though, I was surprised by the ease with which we could move from building to building. American politicians do have to be accessible to their constituents.

Our group passed by the U.S. Senate as a cluster of Democratic senators was holding a press event on the Senate’s steps to support President Barack Obama’s efforts to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour from its present $7.25. Security personnel prevented us from getting too close to the gathering, but it was an unexpected thrill for the students to see this event.

And we came upon this scene on the Senate steps right after the showstopper of the day—watching the nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court in session. It was breathtaking that members of the public could walk off the street into the Court, like we did, for three hallowed minutes to experience the aura of the Court. Admittedly, we waited in line for well over an hour and went through a few rounds of security to get in. It was a controversial day too for the Court, as they offered their 5-4 verdict in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, the new campaign finance decision whereby aggregate limits are lifted on individual donors. What an exhilarating civics class!

As the deluge of tourists continues these weeks, I wonder if those shepherding school groups from around the United States through Washington’s many attractions will also be conducting scavenger hunts. The treasure hunt I experienced was an exemplary, creative, and inspiring way to examine aspects of U.S. federal institutions in this era of stalemated, cynical politics, especially for Washington teenagers. Similar treasure hunts would undoubtedly capture the imaginations of any student groups visiting Washington, this spring and beyond. Yet for many, merely being in Washington and seeing its sights in person is thrilling enough.

* One was of Virginia’s canals, the other of Virginia’s roadways.
** Queen Elizabeth

Washington mourns Nelson Mandela

The Stars and Stripes at half-mast over the White HouseThe outpouring of respect, admiration, and affection for Nelson Mandela here in Washington, D.C., since his death on December 5, has been phenomenal. It would be hard to match—apart from in South Africa itself—the reverence and passion felt for Mandela by the residents of this city. After his many visits to the city, Washingtonians responded to Mandela’s passing as if he were a true native son.

The degree of goodwill toward South Africa—as personified by the inimitable and inspirational Mandela—moved me this past week. There are many Americans who care greatly about South Africa and genuinely want it to succeed.

Appreciation of Madiba’s life accomplishments is especially heartfelt in the large African American community and diaspora of Africans from across the continent, both immigrants and diplomats. Resonance between black Americans’ struggle to assert their civil rights and that of black South Africans is self-evident. The local African American community played a critical role in stoking opposition to the Reagan administration’s policy of “constructive engagement” with South Africa’s Nationalist government. Their campaign of seeking arrest at the South African Embassy here in the mid-1980s is well recognized as having been pivotal. Until Barack Obama’s election to the White House, their finest hour was their success in strategizing to oppose U.S. political and economic backing of apartheid South Africa and support growing worldwide disgust at the white minority government’s oppression of the black majority.

Official Washington responded quickly to the news of Madiba’s passing. Within half an hour of South African President Jacob Zuma announcing Mandela’s death, U.S. President Obama delivered stirring comments on Mandela from the White House press briefing room. He also declared, in a rare honour for a foreigner, that flags outside federal buildings would be flown at half-mast for a week out of respect for Mandela.

The top-heavy U.S. delegation to Mandela’s memorial service in Soweto last Tuesday says everything about U.S. regard for Mandela. It is unprecedented that four current and former U.S. presidents (and perhaps a fifth prospective one?) would travel to the memorial service of a former head of state.

President Obama’s speech at the Soweto memorial was unquestionably the rousing center point of the memorial—it was the eulogy of the day. And thank goodness for it. Without it, the speeches would have been rather ho-hum. Obama recognized that it “took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailer as well; to show that you must trust others so that they may trust you; to teach that reconciliation is not a matter of ignoring a cruel past, but also a means of confronting it with inclusion, generosity and truth. He changed laws, but also hearts”. He noted, “Nelson Mandela reminds us that it always seems impossible until it is done”.

The pity is that the thoughtful content President Obama offered was overshadowed by the non-controversy of his quick handshake with Cuban President Raul Castro, the stupid reaction to the “selfie” photograph and seat change, and the extremely disconcerting problem of the incompetent, violence-prone signer standing feet away from some of the world’s most important people during the ceremony.

The U.S. national memorial service for Mandela was held in the Washington National Cathedral on December 11, the day after the Soweto memorial service. It was, in many ways, the polar opposite of the chaotic, carnival-like—yet also deliciously revelatory—Soweto service. It was purposeful, reflective, impassioned yet solemn. Unlike the Soweto memorial or yesterday’s dignified Qunu burial, both of which took place with the world’s full attention, this service appears to have received little publicity. Which is a shame, because it was outstanding. I urge readers to watch videos of the proceedings.

The main speeches were very thoughtful. Vice President Joe Biden spoke first, followed later by Andrew Young, Allan Boesak, and finally South African Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool. The last three speeches were essentially powerful “calls to action”. Young admonished mourners that “we have nothing yet to celebrate” as “the hungry can’t eat hope, they can’t drink inspiration … we have to keep on keeping on”. Boesak too reiterated that, in the words of Rev. James Moore’s gospel song, “It ain’t over until God says it’s done”. In a singularly eloquent and well-crafted speech, Rasool acknowledged, “Nelson Mandela’s values are eternal in time, universal in space, and enduring in every circumstance…[and] he always understood that progress only comes from working together.” Rasool ended his comments by noting that “Madiba is not here to light the path with his courage and his sacrifice. Each of us who has been inspired by him and been touched by him and moved by him must continue the long walk”.

There is nothing more ”establishment” or respectable in Washington than a memorial service in your honour at the National Cathedral. I marveled at the irony and majesty of the profound service for the formerly marginalized “terrorist” whose name was too recently removed from the list forbidding entry into the United States. What a long, improbable and incredibly inspiring walk Nelson Mandela undertook.

The South African Embassy in Washington was the locus for daily gatherings of mourners. Many placed flowers by the embassy’s newly unveiled statute of Mandela and signed condolence books. There were also nightly prayer vigils with robust singing and dancing.

There were some grumblings of discontent at the attention showered on Mandela. Some questioned the lowering of the Stars and Stripes, asking why this was ordered for a foreigner. “Were U.S. presidents similarly honoured in foreign countries?” It was also fascinating to learn how conservative supporters of Senator Ted Cruz and former Speaker Newt Gingrich criticized them for offering praise of Mandela. This underscores how much work remains to be done in furthering racial reconciliation and understanding—not only in South Africa, but in the United States too.

Flowers from admirers

Local government still works

community awareness effortAmericans’ present despair and disgust with the federal government does not extend to local government. Opinion polls by Gallup and the Pew Research Center underscore that Americans consistently view local government more positively than the federal government. In a hierarchy of favourability, local government comes out on top, followed by state government, with the federal government coming last—and less than half as popular as both local and state government.

Local government is better regarded because it truly responds to people’s needs. Local representatives are close to the people they serve; indeed, they live among them. Local officials are pragmatic and flexible; they focus on “getting things done” rather than ideological purity. They also have to provide the desired services within budget—unlike their federal counterparts—so they are seen as better guardians of people’s money.

Local government is government “for the people, by the people, of the people”. The local governing process can be influenced very directly by community activism, with committed people in the community really able to impact an outcome. Countering and even overriding “legal capture” by vested and special interests is possible in the local realm. No wonder local government is regarded more positively.

Two current campaigns in our area illustrate key aspects of local government’s openness to those it serves. The lack of pavements or “sidewalks” along some key arterial roads in our neighbourhood is dangerous for pedestrians. Fairfax County is receptive to concerns about pedestrian safety, and has added requests for sidewalks on these busy roads to the long list of presently unfunded transportation projects in the county. This list is available on the Internet. Very transparently, the county asks for community input to help prioritize the desired tasks. There is now a concerted neighbourhood effort to have stakeholders fill in the online survey to help escalate the prioritization of providing these long-coveted sidewalks. There will also be public meetings to discuss county priorities, with members of the public encouraged to attend to offer their viewpoints. Of course, the activists in our community are urging as many as possible to participate in these meetings. Many living along the two busy streets have also placed signs on their lawns to draw attention to the campaign.

The other initiative being pushed locally is a perennial issue in Fairfax County Public Schools. This is the campaign for later high school start times. Nearby Arlington and Loudoun Counties have already made the shift, while Montgomery County across the Potomac River in Maryland is also considering the adjustment.

Pushing the present FCPS high school start time of 7:20 a.m. to after 8 a.m. is the goal. The research is quite clear on the benefits of later school starting times for teenagers, given their natural circadian or biologically driven body-clock rhythms. The apparent benefits of more morning sleep and less sleep deprivation include increased academic achievement, improved performance in tests (especially in those held at the start of the school day), better school attendance, improved punctuality in arriving at school, reduced drop out rates, fewer car accidents, less reported depression, fewer health center visits, and less daytime sleepiness in class. Research seems to suggest that bed times do not shift to later if school start times are pushed back (one could be cynical about this finding, knowing teenagers’ approach to bedtime…). It is suggested that sleep appears to increase by the amount that school start time is delayed.

Resistance to implementing later high school start times is mainly due to the impact on bus transport to and from school. These transportation costs are why the change has not been made previously, despite attempts to do so. Presently, the same buses are used for at least three shifts: to transport high school, then middle school, and lastly elementary school children to their respective schools. Adjusting high school start times might mean modifying all schools’ start times (this is the approach Montgomery County’s superintendent recommends), particularly if the same number of buses and drivers are to be used. Other school districts have accomplished later high school start times by “flipping” the sequence of pick up, with elementary school children, for example, being switched to the earliest shift. Yet dislike of little children waiting in the morning dark for buses is apparently why rare school districts revert to earlier high school start times if they switched. Increased transportation costs—for more buses and drivers—appear to be the biggest impediments to changing school start times, especially in this era of reduced budgets.

Other constraints include leaving enough time for extracurricular athletic activities, especially considering after-hours use of school facilities by community groups; after-school employment of students; childcare of younger siblings; overall adjustments in family schedules; and the impact on commuting traffic.

Giving families time to prepare for such profound schedule changes is key. Providing details about the possible changes is essential, with information meetings being one important and necessary tool. Earlier this year, a meeting was held at the local high school and, more recently, at a community center for members of the public. The speaker at both events was Dr. Judith Owens of the Children’s National Medical Center Division of Sleep Medicine. The FCPS School Board has commissioned the Children’s National Medical Center to submit recommendations on how the board could start high schools after 8 a.m. Many of the earlier comments here are based on my notes from these two meetings. The latter meeting was well attended by local luminaries, including the district supervisor, our local school board member, plus one of the candidates running for the state House of Delegates. I was impressed that they all attended. Clearly, they wanted to hear the presentation and gauge community reactions to it.

SLEEP in Fairfax (Start Later for Excellence in Education Proposal) is a committed group of volunteers who have been working since 2004 for later FCPS high school start times. One has to admire their fortitude and perseverance. The momentum now somehow suggests that, this time round, their hard work toward this long-sought goal will have the desired outcome.

Local activists have an encouraging track record. A success in 2011, for example, was the extension of kindergarten to full day from half day in the last FCPS schools that didn’t yet have it.

So if you want to make a difference in your community, try influencing local government. Your odds are better here than at the federal level.

Madiba wows Washington

Fully unveiled at lastA new statue of Nelson Mandela dazzled, charmed, and empowered all gathered outside the South African embassy in Washington this past overcast Saturday. Especially endearing to those present was the uncovering—thanks to wind gusts—of Mandela’s characteristic raised fist ahead of the statue’s official unveiling. Speaker after speaker remarked on how “only Nelson Mandela would unveil himself”. He was certainly that kind of leader. He saw the path forward before others did, and then brought them along.

The premature exposure of Mandela’s defiant fist was perfect for an occasion rich in symbolism. South African Ambassador to the United States Ebrahim Rasool gave the speech of the day. He delivered a rousing tribute to Mandela and an impassioned, mesmerizing exposition of how morality trumps legality. “What is legal,” he reminded, “is not always moral”. He welcomed the nearly completed renovation of the embassy. He delighted in its spiritual cleansing and purifying. From being a place in which the heinous had been defended, the embassy was now a place of promise, where the new could be combined with the best of the old. The statue of Mandela out in front underscored this fresh beginning for the embassy.

Peek-a-boo
The tribute from Zindzi Mandela, the youngest Mandela daughter, was poignant. Most Americans remember her as a feisty 25-year-old who read a letter from her still-imprisoned father to a huge rally in Soweto in 1985. She famously read, “Only free men can negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter into contracts.” She was frank at Saturday’s event too. She shared how inaccurate and hurtful much media speculation was about her 95-year-old father’s health and how he would meet His Maker in due course. She stressed that he had always seen and conducted himself as part of a collective, as a member of the African National Congress, and never as an individual. Even in divorcing her mother, Zindzi noted, her father had done this as part of a collective.

Being part of a community or collective was a constant theme. American speakers at the event included luminaries from the protests organized outside the South African embassy in the mid-1980s. There were many references to these Washington demonstrations and the accompanying frequent arrests, as well as to the divestment and disinvestment campaigns. In these efforts, U.S. pension funds were pressured to divest the stock of U.S. and foreign corporations invested in South Africa; such companies were also pressured to disinvest from South Africa. These collaborative efforts were critical. Together, they helped force a reluctant Reagan administration to adopt sanctions against South Africa. Such economic and other pressures contributed to the Nationalist government’s increasing isolation and to a general sense of crisis. Eventually, the unconditional release of political prisoners like Mandela and negotiations between the Nationalist government and the ANC brought freedom and democracy to all South Africans.

Contributors from the podium spoke often about the essential connection between black Americans’ struggle to assert their civil rights in the United States and their support for black South Africans in their struggle. Many noted that this year is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech. One speaker referenced the triangle that was now formed by the statues of King on the National Mall, Mahatma Gandhi nearby at the Indian embassy, and Mandela. These three are global icons in the push for equality and social justice in diverse societies around the world.

Listening to the American activists sharing recollections of their participation in the Free South Africa Movement was also a little jarring for this South African. Sometimes I found the commentary a little myopic and ahistorical. Yes, activism in the United States helped dramatically to change the global position of the Nationalist government and contributed profoundly to its demise. But somehow—apart from the obvious stress on Mandela’s role—the contributions of ordinary black South Africans in defying the government, making its laws unworkable, increasing the costs of enforcement, and generally opposing the unjust system that dictated their lives were understated at the event. The anti-apartheid movement was far more than American elites protesting outside the South African embassy in Washington and its consulates around the United States.

The day was replete with many wonderful moments. Keynote speaker South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, broke into a struggle song about Mandela before delivering her comments. How many foreign ministers would sing an impromptu solo like that! The mood in the gathered audience (at least where I was sitting) was relaxed and happy, with many introductions and reunions taking place. The clothing of many is also worthy of comment. Gorgeous colourful beads and fabrics abounded. I also enjoyed watching a D.C. policewoman snapping photos of the activities on her cell phone in between her official duty of directing traffic. It was that kind of a joyful day! And it was a most positive affirmation of South African-U.S. bilateral relations.

Even the rain—always a blessing in Africa—waited for the ceremony’s conclusion before bringing relief to parched Washington.

Shrouded in mystery

Far beyond the Beltway

Americans are consistently concerned about their elected representatives becoming too Washington-centric. The bubble of Washington’s self-important political culture is alluring.

Leaving Washington and considering it from other vantages is always revealing. Whether viewing it from elsewhere in the United States, or from another country—as I am now, from Cape Town, South Africa—one always has a different perspective on Washington than when in it.

Washington, D.C., is a self evidently important global focal point. There are many cities in the world where momentous decisions are made that profoundly impact others, especially those living outside that city’s perimeters and indeed beyond that country’s borders. Washington and Beijing are arguably the two most powerful cities in the world at present, with the impact and influence of decisions made in these cities and then implemented beyond them being breathtaking.

On this visit to South Africa, I am mostly struck by how esoteric and inward-looking much of what is happening in Washington appears when one is well beyond “the Beltway”, the famous highway that encircles Washington. Certainly, these impressions occur too when in Washington itself. Indeed, one can then be consumed with dismay and frustration at the small-minded posturing and pettiness of much so-called debate there nowadays. As I sit in Cape Town, I am taken by the extent of the seeming triviality and purposelessness of so much of the political machinations in Washington. The antics and contortions of politicians there suggest they have lost the big picture. Their inability to address the U.S.’s challenges of the day has greatly damaged perceptions of the United States.

President Barack Obama’s recent visit to South Africa is one prism through which to view perceptions of the United States. I have intentionally asked as many local people as possible about how they viewed the president’s visit. Reactions ranged from great enthusiasm and appreciation to utter indifference and dismissal. There were of course also boisterous demonstrations against Obama’s presence from local Moslems appalled at targeted drone killings, as well as by those supporting the Palestinian cause and protesting U.S. bias toward Israel in the Middle East.

A key factor on President Obama’s visit to South Africa was the hospitalization in Pretoria of an elderly Nelson Mandela. Concern over Mandela’s health pervaded Obama’s visit. Obama recognized people’s distracted attention by mentioning Mandela at every opportunity throughout his visit and acknowledging Mandela’s profound influence on himself. Most importantly, Obama gained enormous goodwill and personal credit by backing away from possibly seeing the ailing Mandela, instead meeting privately with family members. South Africans approved wholeheartedly of this sensitivity by Obama.

Many to whom I have spoken were glad President Obama had taken the trouble to come. For those following the visit more closely, Obama’s public speeches at the University of Johannesburg ‘s Soweto branch and the next day at the University of Cape Town were well received, more notably the latter as it was less choreographed and so perceived as more sincere.

The UCT speech was noted for its focus on aspirations, ideas, and values. Obama remarked on the impossibility of predicting what was happening at that very moment—America’s first black president addressing a fully integrated audience at a South African university that had awarded an honorary degree to Nelson Mandela. Obama’s comments on the pernicious impact of corruption were particularly popular, reflecting South Africans’ dismay at increasing local corruption. His observation that government should serve its people rather than itself seemed to garner even more applause than when Obama greeted the crowd with South African salutations, including the ubiquitous “howzit”.

A Johannesburg-based friend shared an anecdote about a taxi driver she encountered who had journeyed to Soweto specifically to line the route the president’s motorcade would travel to his UJ Soweto speech. The driver was apparently enthralled by the experience. Other Johannesburg friends who were caught up in traffic snarl-ups related to the Obama visit remarked negatively on all the hardware that goes along with a presidential trip, with the word “circus” being used a few times.

While people overall appreciated that Obama, the first black American president, had come to South Africa, and recognized him as a “good guy”, others said “so what?” Many preferred instead to speak about their opposition to U.S. policies. They spoke of their dislike of U.S. surveillance methods and U.S. policies in the Middle East and the Pakistan/Afghanistan region. Others commented on the irony of Obama being so moved upon visiting Robben Island, where Mandela and other leaders from the anti-apartheid struggle were imprisoned for many years, while detainees from the war in Afghanistan are being held in Guantanamo Bay.

Obama coming to South Africa and making a couple of solid speeches certainly didn’t change the latent anti-Americanism of many South Africans. They need more than a once-in-a-blue-moon presidential visit to be convinced that the United States wants to engage seriously in Africa—and is not ceding Africa to the Chinese and Brazilians. For the United States to be more of a player here than it is, South Africans need to feel and see more commitment.

Personally, I do feel that the United States does not get the credit it should for its incredibly generous HIV/AIDS work here. Many hundreds of thousands of South Africans are alive today because of the U.S. PEPFAR Program, which began its life-sustaining donations of anti-retrovirals under President George W. Bush.

While Washington’s political sway might be diminishing in Africa, the pervasive impact of Hollywood and the U.S. music industry is amazing. The amusing, loveable minions from “Despicable Me” have, for example, achieved much attention in South Africa—wider than hapless American politicians? Reflecting clever marketing too, the minions appear in unexpected contexts here.

Is the soft power of American culture perhaps more powerful than the well-articulated thoughts of a visiting American president?