From Apartheid to Obama

Twenty years ago, my family left South Africa for the U.S. Behind us we left a segregated, isolated nation, and a president, P.W. Botha, who refused to relent to global condemnation of apartheid. I remember arguing with my classmates during … Read More

By / November 8, 2008

Twenty years ago, my family left South Africa for the U.S. Behind us we left a segregated, isolated nation, and a president, P.W. Botha, who refused to relent to global condemnation of apartheid. I remember arguing with my classmates during election time, upholding the minority opinion-that a black person could be president. We arrived in a country that appeared little less than utopian, during those first rose-tinted weeks. I entered a public school in Los Angeles filled with a rainbow of races. There were black teachers, black lawyers, white people cleaning homes. I rushed home to tell my mother I’d made a black friend. Twenty years ago, my family left apartheid South Africa, a nation four-fifths black, but long ruled only by whites. We believed nothing would change, at least not for the better. We were wrong. Six years after we left, Nelson Mandela became the first black president. Twelve years after we arrived in Los Angeles, George W. Bush became president of my adopted homeland. During those twelve years, a lot had become apparent to me about this country. For one, racism existed here. I was shocked when I witnessed it; this racism was subtle, insidious; racism as we knew it in South Africa was overt, written into the constitution. Here, the constitution spoke of liberty and justice. Yet there was racism nonetheless, and nor was it the only form of injustice; in the wealthiest nation in the world, there existed the biggest gap between rich and poor. There were homeless on the city streets, millions without health insurance, children going hungry. At some point I decided to do something about my convictions, and began organizing civil disobedience with activist friends. In November 2003, I was in Miami protesting the Free Trade Area of the Americas, a proposal to extend NAFTA to the entire western hemisphere, barring Cuba. The Bush Administration put $8.5 million of an $87 billion War on Terror package into "protecting" the city of Miami from protesters, who were overwhelmingly nonviolent. This translated into rubber bullets, tear gas, tasers, thousands of riot cops, hundreds of helicopters, tanks on the streets. The crackdown was so harsh that it subsequently became known as the "Miami Model." There was a point, facing a line of marshmallowed riot cops in a "dead zone" of downtown, where it occurred to me to wonder whether my family had left one police state only to land in another. In August of 2004, I went to New York City to protest the Republican National Convention’s re-nomination of George W. Bush. Again, those there to voice their constitutional right to dissent-and there were hundreds of thousands of us-were shut out, demonized, jailed. By the state, that is; New Yorkers themselves were generally happy to see us. I’ve protested many things these past eight years: war in Iraq, free trade agreements, anti-immigrant policies, to name a few. But there was a point where it became too much. Where I picked up the paper, read of yet another heretofore unconscionable breach of governance or democracy, and just shook my head. Over the past eight years, this country has sunk abysmally. The Bush administration abandoned the beautiful ideals upon which this country was founded, those ideals which inspired me to recite the Pledge of Allegiance with such fervor as a starry-eyed twelve-year-old. Every direction in which I glance–foreign policy, the environment, the economy, social services, reproductive rights–we who are citizens of this nation have sustained profound, possibly irreversible, damage. And the repercussions, as we are seeing playing out daily on the market, are global. When Barack Obama began his campaign, he spoke of hope. And an exhausted nation pricked up its ears and listened. The return of hope, said Obama, and perhaps it was power of suggestion, perhaps it was nothing more than the possibility of change, but something shifted, something clear and fierce streaked between we who were waiting. The return of outrage, I wrote. That’s what this should be called; the return of outrage over all we’ve lost these past eight years. Change is a mysterious creature. Would we ever have reached this point, the point where a candidate like Barack Obama is a possibility, where reality etches itself into a semblance of the unity he champions, without the mire of these past eight years? Twenty years to the day after my family left apartheid South Africa–hurling ourselves across the Atlantic in the direction of hope–I voted for Barack Obama, son of a Kenyan and the first black President of these United States of America. Marisa Handler is the author of Loyal to the Sky, the coming-of-age-story of a South African Jew whose emigration to the United States proved to be just the first step of her journey. She also has produced an album, Dark Spoke.

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