“What you must understand,” the taxi driver lectured, as he hurtled me through the streets of Johannesburg, “is that we’re only a teenager in democracy. Your country is much older, more mature. You’re an old man, and we’re a child at this.”
While I’ve traveled the breadth and width of South Africa many times over the past 25 years, I hadn’t seen his country in that light until he put it just so. Now, after hearing this university-educated driver describe his homeland with a mix of pride and frustration, his words resonated on so many levels.
Since the 1990 capitulation of the apartheid regime to internal and international pressure, the Republic of South Africa has emerged as a fledgling democracy. Its constitution, modeled in great part on the U.S. Constitution, is a model for the African continent. Yet, for all its success at transitioning from its past as a violently racist, minority-rule society to the contemporary one-person, one-vote democracy, its people struggle to find equilibrium in the meaningful demands of racial diversity and social fairness.
Here’s a graphic example: During my brief trip there last month, the story of the moment that gripped the nation revolved around a satirical painting of South African President Jacob Zuma, which portrayed the 70-year-old with his genitals exposed.
The reaction to the artistic expression was color-coded. Some, largely white South Africans, argued that the nation’s constitution supported freedom of speech and that Brett Murray, a white artist who loves to poke at hornets’ nests, should be allowed to paint as freely as his palate allows.
Others, mainly supporters of Zuma’s African National Congress political organization, saw the art in a totally different light. Indeed, some labeled it as a racist attack on black African culture.
The debate reminded me of home. In much the same fashion as the South Africans, black and white Americans easily lose track of the country's shared values when a divisive racial issue comes along, like a shiny spinning object, to distract us from our common national identity.
Back home, as a presidential campaign gathers momentum, it’s not difficult to sniff out the divergent views of how race is lived and viewed. At nearly the same time that South Africans were arguing about free speech in a racial context, Americans debated what to think when millionaire businessman Donald Trump’s reiterated his “birther” campaign theme to attack President Obama on behalf of presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
Is this free speech? Or is it a subversive racial attack?
When I asked my South African cab driver whether he saw a parallel in the Zuma issue with Trump’s comments in the U.S., he laughed at the question. But, try as I might, I couldn’t get him to offer an opinion.
“We look to you in America as a role model and an example of what to avoid, too,” he said.
In this case, so it seems, democracy’s child is teaching its elder an important lesson. As demographics begin to evolve, America’s older democracy proves that it still has so much left to learn.
The author is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the center's Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.
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