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US lessons for SA

Jan 28 2013 07:29 * Mandi Smallhorne
US President Barack Obama

US President Barack Obama. (Jewel Samad, AFP)

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WOW, President Barack Obama gives great speeches! Even cynics who’ve lost virtually all faith in politicos might be forgiven for feeling a little unaccustomed moisture sneak into their eyes.

His inauguration speech was saturated with references and resonances.

A couple that struck me very forcibly: "We the people declare today that the most evident of truths, that all of us are created equal, is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall..."

I am sure that citizens of the USA who paid attention during history class would instantly know the weight of meaning in the use of those particular place names, but do we?

Selma will ring bells with people who are familiar with the struggle for civil rights, of course, people who’ve seen films like Mississippi Burning.

It was the town where Bloody Sunday, March 7 1965, took place, when 600 civil rights protesters were attacked by police wielding billy clubs and tear gas.

A second march followed, a few days later, which drew 2 500 marchers; on March 16 the third march made it to their goal, the state capitol of Alabama, Montgomery.

But Seneca Falls? It was a town central to the struggle for equal rights for women. In 1848, the  Seneca Falls Women's Rights Convention resulted in the "Declaration of Sentiments", a call for women’s rights which begins with an echo of the very speech Obama referenced so powerfully:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

"Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of those who suffer from it to refuse allegiance to it, and to insist upon the institution of a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organising its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness".

South Africa might take note of these sentiments: "...it is the right of those who suffer from it to refuse allegiance to it, and to insist upon the institution of a new government...  People will not suffer bad and rapacious government forever".

As our own struggle shows. And no matter how attached they are to their traditions, if tradition results in unfair treatment, women will not endure the sort of patriarchal chauvinism common in South Africa forever, either.

And Stonewall, of course, is considered by many to be the real beginning of the gay liberation movement in the USA.

On June 28 1969, police carried out a raid on the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, an establishment which welcomed gays at a time when gays in the USA faced severe laws.

Unexpected and uncharacteristic rioting broke out (gays then were so afraid of exposure that they usually offered little resistance). Stonewall is a powerful symbol even in South Africa, where gays still battle awful and sometimes deadly discrimination despite our great constitution.

Obama went on to hammer this message home with words that by now most people have heard:

"Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal, as well."

But the shocking thrill of the mention of gay rights and same-sex marriage in an inaugural speech swamped the words that came just before them:

"...our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts".

Which to me is a clarion call to complete at least one aspect of women’s liberation, and close the gender pay gap that still exists. It’s a stark reminder of how unfinished the job is, 165 years after Seneca Falls.

The focus on climate change was timely:

"Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms."

As Obama spoke, Limpopo was battling floods which halted coal mining operations, left thousands stranded, destroyed large swathes of cropland, and killed several.

This is the economic and human cost of the extreme weather climate change is bringing all around the world. Without political will in the USA to tackle it, we stand little chance of halting this runaway horse. I only hope that Obama will live up to this speech – and that Congress will not stand in his way.

And finally, it sounded as though Obama was speaking directly to us in South Africa when he said:

"For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it."

Yes, Mr President. I hope you live up to your speech. I hope you are allowed to do so by the forces lined up against these progressive ideals. And I hope our own powers that be will, one day soon, do the same.

- Fin24

*Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on twitter.


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barack obama  |  mandi smallhorne
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