I didn’t expect, when I first moved to South Africa in 2009, how much it would feel like America. Every place does, more and more; or every place feels increasingly like every other place, a globe of placelessness, the world as duty-free lounge. But South Africa was even more so. It was as if the geographical strata of American society—gentrified urban, marginalized urban, suburban, country—had been compressed into a much smaller area. Outside South Africa’s cities is cowboy country, with wide, fenced ranches punctuated by townlets featuring beef-jerky stores and tractor wholesalers. Closer in are rings of suburbs with split-level houses with pools and the occasional American-style shopping mall. The cities are divided between zones of economic despair and bourgeois-bohemian enclaves reminiscent of San Francisco or Austin.
The two countries also share a similar history. South Africa had its own (eastward) expansion by white “pioneers” in ox-wagons who set up “republics” on occupied lands. Both of their origin stories were defined by exceptionalism: America was the “city on a hill,” while South Africa’s European settlers saw themselves as chosen by God to civilize Africa’s native inhabitants. Both narratives were undermined by terrible racial prejudice. Their successful civil rights struggles led portions of both countries to feel they had overcome a substantial part of their original sin and had, perhaps, fulfilled their redemptive promise in an unexpected way.
With Nelson Mandela’s ascent to the presidency in 1994, South Africa became the rare country other than the United States in which historical white power
had been substantially challenged by the rise of previously oppressed peoples of color; the only country in which whites and blacks coexisted with the latter forming a serious demographic challenge to the former; and also the only country anchored, in its identity, not on a long-defined territorial definition or on an ethnic base, but a set of ideals: tolerance, reconciliation, freedom.
There’s a conscious affinity. South Africa’s remarkable jazz was inspired by waves of African-American musicians employed on American ships that stopped in Cape Town during the late 19th and early 20th century, including the Confederate warship Alabama. (A tune whose name translates to “Here Comes the Alabama!” from Afrikaans—the Dutch-derived creole that was the main language spoken under apartheid—is still one of South Africa’s most-covered folk songs.) Its street style took inspiration from American gangster movies the apartheid authorities screened in black townships in the hopes they could get blacks to sympathize with the law-abiding sheriffs. (They couldn’t.) South Africans adore American hip-hop and country music. I once snapped a picture of a young man in Johannesburg named Madiba—Mandela’s nickname—who’d gone out clubbing in an American-flag puffer jacket. Yankees caps are hot.
The parallels, when I first arrived, had one major exception—the president. The United States was beginning Barack Obama’s first term. In South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, a figure a little like Obama—handsome, intellectual, rhetorically refined, slightly aloof—had been replaced by a far less lofty figure: Jacob Zuma.
It was a radical shift. South Africa’s first two postapartheid presidents, Mbeki and Mandela, were personally virtuous, calm-tempered international darlings. By contrast, prior to taking office, Zuma had already been accused of—and tried for—rape. (He was acquitted, although he did admit to having sex—consensual, he claimed—with a friend’s 31-year-old daughter. Zuma told the court that he protected himself from contracting HIV from her by taking a shower.) He’d become affluent through questionable means, raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars from a corrupt business adviser who sought his help to advance his company’s interests. In 2005, the adviser was put in jail, and the judge in the case publicly said the evidence was “overwhelming” that Zuma had accepted bribes. Zuma himself was charged with corruption for allegedly taking bribes from a different, foreign company.
Yet Zuma wowed crowds outside South Africa’s metropolitan centers in open-air rallies and events, sometimes dancing in traditional African clothing—a leopard-skin cape, a skirt made of pelts. He had four wives and nearly 20 children. (Polygamy is legal in South Africa, but rarely practiced by educated black men.) He played at once a strongman and a victim, calling his legal troubles a “carefully orchestrated, politically inspired and driven strategy” by elites “to exclude me.” He flaunted a belligerent streak—his signature song, an anti-white anthem from the anti-apartheid struggle, translated from Zulu as “Bring Me My Machine Gun.” He oozed a kind of authenticity missing from South African politics: rough, real, a product of spaces and cultures within the country that academics or the wealthy generally avoid.
If this sounds oddly reminiscent of the current occupant of the White House, that isn’t a coincidence. Like America, the South African story, lately, has been troubled by the sense that a group of people are languishing outside the cultural elite, harboring a growing resentment. And that these people represented the resurgence of historical tensions the country thought it had left behind. Only in South Africa, this silent majority was black.
“How much fun is it, watching the U.S. trying to deal with a President whose cronies are guilty of crimes—involving him—while he still holds office?” a South African tweeted recently. “Feels a bit like watching someone else have your nightmare: a little nostalgic, a little scary, a little superior.”
Superior because South Africans got rid of their Trump. Eventually, a combination of factors worked against Zuma: relentless investigative work into his activities by the country’s top journalists; a big electoral loss for the ruling ANC party in municipal elections in 2016; elite outcry at his excesses; and hard pushback by the country’s judiciary institutions. In a late-night address last February, Zuma resigned as the country’s president.
Sometimes I like to tell people back home that South Africa collapses 200 years of American history into just two decades: our past—in substantial ways South Africa before 1994 resembled the antebellum South—and our future, insofar as a white-run, purportedly white-designed, and visibly white-dominated public space is now dominated by people of color.
Maybe South Africa has something to teach America: how to react to a leader like Zuma, one whose hard break from the political status quo yielded outrages
and disregard for the truth that seemed to amplify with each passing day. And what can happen when a society gets rid of such a man. It’s hard to look past the presidency of a person like Zuma or Donald Trump, hard to focus on anything but his survival or his downfall. But South Africa has been past it for almost a year now. “Twenty-one years into our democracy, we are facing a crisis that could render our society dysfunctional,” Stephen Grootes, one of the country’s top political commentators, wrote of Zuma in 2015. Eventually Zuma was brought down. Had democracy been saved?
The township of Diepsloot—“deep ditch” in Afrikaans—is a relatively new settlement, a few square miles of poor, almost exclusively black people who have been coming to Johannesburg since the restrictions on movement that confined many blacks were lifted in the early ’90s. Diepsloot is a bellwether for events in postapartheid South Africa. Before I moved to the country, I’d read books on the magical redemption story that was its peaceful transition from white- to black-majority rule. I’d seen the photographs of Mandela triumphantly clasping the hand of the country’s last white president, an iconic end-of-20th-century symbol of humanity’s potential to overcome the darker, prejudiced aspects of its nature.
Yet there was also the strong sense something was off. A feeling hung over the country that some national center couldn’t hold. Inequality had increased since the end of apartheid, as some well-positioned people—whites with capital and well-connected people of color—were able to take advantage of the end of apartheid-era sanctions and market their wine or banks or clothing companies or sheer coolness throughout Africa and the world. White-headed households still brought in five times the income of black-headed ones. “Madam,” a black child politely asked me once while I was taking a stroll in a Johannesburg neighborhood, “why aren’t you in your car?” He had never seen a white woman on foot before.
Diepsloot was presented in the media as the epicenter of the problem. Hardly a week went by without a hair-raising story of violent protests against bad plumbing and attacks against migrants from elsewhere in Africa, on whom the residents took out their rage. Anton Harber, a leading journalist, warned that “if you want to understand where this country is headed, listen to the people of Diepsloot.”
On a recent afternoon I drove there to do just that. Mansions stood atop peaks lit gold in the waning sun, and sweet wooden signs swung along the main road: PARADISE BEND, COPPERLEAF GOLF ESTATE. The region around Diepsloot is colloquially considered “horse country,” a pastoral swath of homesteads and farms between Johannesburg and Pretoria, the country’s capital. It looked on Google Maps as if I were right on top of Diepsloot, but I couldn’t see or hear it.
A quirk of South Africa’s geography is that it makes starkly, physically real the kinds of cleavages that, in other countries, tend to be more figurative. Under apartheid, white-only neighborhoods were often intentionally separated from black, Indian, or mixed-race neighborhoods by a physical feature, like a river or a railway line. Townships were nestled into dips in the land, tucked behind the prettiest face of a mountain; some were even hidden in acoustically enclosed areas. From many a balcony or front stoop, South Africa still preserves the fantasy that life can be led as if black people don’t exist. Much of the country remains enveloped in an eerie quiet: a silence so profound you can hear the lourie birds calling or the beating of your own heart, even though you know, very close, there are thousands of other hearts, beating, invisibly.
I finally followed a pickup truck around a bend—the area around Diepsloot is undergoing development, and the back of the truck was filled with black construction workers—and there it was: a single shopping mall, with a rectangle of banks and a Kentucky Fried Chicken, and block upon block of shacks and street-side stalls selling shoes dumped by American charities and grilled chicken feet.
I had come to Diepsloot to meet a 36-year-old resident named Mothakge Makwela. I’d met Mothakge seven years earlier when I’d followed the journalist Harber’s advice and paid my first visit to Diepsloot. Mothakge operated a web site with articles dedicated to giving outsiders a view of township life.
This time, though, I wanted to talk to him about Zuma. Mothakge had been a huge Zuma supporter, organizing for his first election campaign in Diepsloot. “He was for the ordinary folk,” Mothakge said.
A slight man with short dreadlocks and soft eyes, he wore noticeably pressed clothes—best to be disarmingly nice and reassuringly gentle-spoken to receive visitors. We went to the KFC at the Diepsloot Mall to talk about his past, and for him to explain to me how he could have supported a man like Jacob Zuma. As we ordered, the cashier entreated us to “add hope” to our bill for two rand (about 15 cents)—a campaign for a charity. Mothakge laughed and said that mirrored his experience coming of age in postapartheid South Africa. “Hope,” he said, “was always something you buy.”
Born in the country’s rural east and raised, in part, in Diepsloot, Mothakge was 11 when Mandela was inaugurated. The thrill around the transition to democracy had led him to expect something entirely different for himself than his parents had gotten out of life—his mother was a maid, his father a driving instructor. And he’d done his part, excelling in South Africa’s famously difficult high school exit exam. He’d hoped to become an engineer and to live in a place like Ferndale, the lush Johannesburg suburb where he’d spent two years of high school on a scholarship.
But when he returned to Diepsloot after graduating, he began to feel he and his friends “were actually getting poorer.” He could never make enough money to live in the central neighborhoods where whites still lived and operated businesses, while “so-called investors” who came to Diepsloot promising benefits—like the mall with the KFC—took out most of the cash, giving little back to the community. The new black leaders seemed to neglect the township, regarding it as an embarrassment and chastising the black people there “for the dirty way we lived” and for attacking foreigners.
Thabo Mbeki—a British-educated dandy who liked to quote Latin—had frequently left the country to hang out at Davos and had instituted an affirmative-action program that ended up mainly benefiting the well-connected. Mothakge peeked into those beneficiaries’ gilded lives when he and his friends would walk to the Fourways Mall in Johannesburg—one of a host of fancy new developments that were springing up in formerly white neighborhoods. It boasted a specialty surfwear boutique, diamond jewelry stores, Steve Madden and Nike shops, and a gourmet frozen yogurt stand. Shop owners and staff would follow Mothakge around, he said, assuming that he was a thief. “When you actually pay, you can see how relieved they are,” Mothakge said bitterly. “And this was done by our black brothers and sisters.”
Mothakge was especially upset by the wide-open spaces he saw when he walked. So much land surrounded the cramped township: undeveloped fields being held by property companies as investments, fenced with razor wire, overhung by tall, black spotlights, and posted with signs warning that “trespassers”—people like himself, he gathered—would be arrested.
He could not understand why, after apartheid, he would be called a “trespasser” in the eyes of a police force run by a black president. “This is my land now,” he said. But whites still owned the majority—two-thirds, by some estimates—of South Africa’s land.
Mothakge even began to doubt Mandela. After Mandela was released from prison, he’d befriended white mining and insurance magnates; in the late 2000s, before Zuma became president, an interpretation circled around Diepsloot that the deal Mandela and the ANC had negotiated for black people had been a Nobel Peace Prize-friendly abrogation of justice that had left apartheid’s brutally unequal economic system—and the racism and classism that enabled it—intact. Economic experts and the black leadership always insisted nothing really radical could be done about apartheid’s legacy; if a redistribution was attempted, the country would undergo a postcolonial collapse, like Zimbabwe next door. “We are suffering now because of the deal they agreed to,” Mothakge told me plainly.
Like many South Africans in his position, he’d put his hopes in Zuma. One of the interesting things about Zuma is that a wider range of people initially supported him in South Africa than backed Trump in America. A white friend of mine, a young entrepreneur, posted “100% ZULU BOY”—one of Zuma’s slogans—on his Facebook wall. Another friend—a bowtied white executive—rhapsodized to me about Zuma’s multiple wives. He mentioned a newspaper photo he’d seen of three of them asleep together on a bench, beatific looks on their faces, and expressed awe that “one man” could keep that many women “so happy.”
If some of Trump’s support in America reflected a reaction to genuine problems—governmental gridlock, economic anxiety, the sense that elite wisdom no longer spoke to many Americans—in South Africa, the problems that gave rise to Zuma were considered even more critical to resolve. Crime, fed by inequality, had ballooned to the point that some analysts designated the country perhaps the most violent in the world. My friend who posted “100% ZULU BOY” said he felt relieved that the face of leadership might be shifting away from people who looked, or at least acted, so much like him; the tone and priorities of political leaders had just seemed wrong, since most South African voters were not well-connected and polished like Mbeki. And it had seemed dangerous. “There is a rage building at the base of society,” a university professor warned during a lecture I attended. “That rage has the risk of burning everything we have built in this country over the last 15 years.”
Mandela and Mbeki had often used words like “prudent” and “modern” to justify their leadership style. As the heads of the last African country to overthrow white rule, they harbored an intense fear of becoming another sad postcolonial tale. They didn’t want to do anything Marxist or pan-Africanist or against the received wisdom of international experts, financiers, or the people who already held capital. The African postcolonial narrative most foreign observers—and investors—knew was that even well-intentioned leaders who broke with Western advice, like Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and Mozambique’s Samora Machel, ruined their countries. By the late 20th century, South Africa was by far the richest African country. It carried on its shoulders the pride and stability of a continent. It had a reputation to sustain.
But their fastidious efforts to act like “acceptable,” upstanding Western leaders led them, even if unwittingly, to perpetuate political habits ingrained during white rule—favoring the interests of the already-wealthy, spouting high-flown language about principles that resulted in too little for the country’s poorest. “I feel like a lot of the leaders we have—you liken them to white men in society,” Tshidi Madia, a black journalist, told me. “Where they become so removed from the people they serve. There is absolutely no shame in jumping out of a Range Rover into somebody’s shack and saying, ‘Hi, I stand with you!’” Elite skepticism of Zuma reminded Mothakge, painfully, of the suspicious way he was viewed at Fourways Mall.
Zuma might have been “corrupt,” but he spoke to a deeper truth underlying South African life, which was that it was entirely rational to question what publicly presented itself as respectability and virtue. S’thembile Cele, another journalist, told me something that sounded paradoxical, but that makes sense—and which parallels the feeling many of Trump’s supporters have about him. “Zuma was untainted by false goodness.”
It was almost eerie how short Zuma’s honeymoon period was. Once he got into power, there was a near-instant recoil from some of the behaviors people had looked forward to, or at least condoned, when Zuma was just an alternative to the status quo. With government money, Zuma began expanding a large homestead in his home province. This befit a Zulu chief, but taxpayers complained. He attacked a white cartoonist for lampooning him; prior to his election, it might have been enjoyable to see him thumbing his nose at a white journalist’s notions of propriety, but once he held office it provoked outrage. Instead of appointing fresh figures as his Cabinet ministers, he tapped cronies late at night and, like Trump, swapped them out constantly.
It soon became clear Zuma’s crookedness was not revolutionary nor symbolic. The ground didn’t quake with change, or even plain old vengeance against the unjust system; instead, he seems to have just stolen a lot of money, pilfering from various state agencies, and then retreated out of sight and sired more children with several other women. Many bad things happened and almost no discernibly good things. Inequality climbed while the rand devalued by more than half against the dollar; his associates got rich while prosperity slipped further out of sight for the likes of Mothakge Makwela. “The African son of a working-class family let down the country,” is how Mothakge put it that afternoon at KFC.
These accumulating outrages united the country for the first time, perhaps, since Mandela’s election. South Africans came to share a refreshing sense of enmity to Zuma. It seemed as if every political commentator put out a book ascribing South Africa’s dysfunctions—from its power outages to its corruption—to Zuma. Every problem became associated with him: “If the rand fell, it was Zuma,” Mothakge said. “If it rained, it was Zuma.” Civil-society groups filed reams of cases against him.
South Africa has an entity like America’s special prosecutor, but standing, not appointed on a case-by-case basis. The Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, prepared a dossier over years on Zuma’s malfeasance, and it became the hope on which the country hung. As we now have Robert Mueller versus Trump, they had the public protector versus Zuma. One news outlet dubbed Madonsela the “guardian” of “what is good and great about South Africa.”
In a hipster café in downtown Johannesburg where I ate a couple of days after I met with Mothakge, I saw a copy of The Economist from October 2016 prominently displayed on a table near the front window. “Healthy democracies depend on unwritten rules,” the lead editorial—on Trump—stated.
I suspected the magazine was there because its opinion seemed to speak to the mood in South Africa, too. The discomforts with the status quo that had swept Zuma into office had been temporarily forgotten, replaced by a hearty defense of institutions and political norms. People now felt that their traditions and norms were precious, and Zuma had violated them. It was strange, though, because this sentiment was nearly the opposite of the one that had dominated the country a decade earlier. A reminder of the former mindset lay tucked beneath The Economist in an obscure foundation’s 2016 report on economic inequality—an injustice propped up, in South Africa, by the kind of unwritten societal rules the populace was going to the barricades to defend. “An exhausted woman working 60 hours a week in a clothing factory,” it read. “A woman cleaning luxury gated flats at dawn, getting mugged as she walks to work from her home on the edge of the city.”
It was faded, and stained so long ago that its glossy pages had stuck together. As I labored to unglue them with a fingernail, a waiter cheerfully offered, “You can just give that to me to throw away.”
My friend Palesa Morudu, a 48-year-old black South African newspaper columnist who travels often to the United States, told me the mood in America right now reminded her eerily of South Africa in the latter stages of Zuma’s presidency—the feeling of “being at five to midnight”; “that East Coast hysteria, screaming at Trump all the time.”
But she had a warning for my fellow Americans: Even as Zuma’s adversaries imagined they were “winning,” there crept in a deep-seated exhaustion, an apathy. “What it did was make us so numb.”
South Africa accomplished what liberal Americans still only dream of—ousting their enemy. After Zuma resigned in early 2018, the ruling ANC replaced him with Cyril Ramaphosa, a much more “normal”-seeming politician and businessman highly admired by economic analysts and overseas observers. The former head of a mineworkers’ union who led strikes against apartheid in the 1980s, Ramaphosa, alongside Mandela, had negotiated the political and economic deal that eased South Africa out of white rule in the early ’90s, and many older South Africans felt a lingering affection for him. Initially, there was an outpouring of relief and excitement. People called it “Ramaphoria.”
Ramaphosa wears well-tailored suits and avoids any hint of demagoguery, speaking in polished, pleasing sound-bites and steering clear of rowdy Zuma-style mass rallies and the press. He nonetheless took office with a history arguably as damning as any postapartheid leader. Extraordinarily wealthy, he serves on numerous boards. In 2012, he emailed the board of a platinum mine on which he serves to encourage them to deploy the police against a group of desperately poor miners striking for higher wages, calling them “criminal.” The next day, the police shot 34 miners dead in South Africa’s worst massacre since apartheid’s end.
Nothing could have been more symbolic of exactly what had disturbed South Africans back in the 2000s about the trajectory of their politics: that leaders who’d once represented the people had become their adversaries; that power brokers were using fully legitimate channels and nice-sounding language to achieve unjust ends; that evildoers draped themselves carefully in the globally recognized apparel and rhetoric of virtue.
In a way, the feelings that pervaded South Africa when I arrived ten years ago resemble America’s sense of itself before Trump. It’s easy to hate Trump’s behavior now. But we can’t deny that, for decades before his rise, a wide range of Americans wanted something loosely like it. Liberals would have been thrilled to have a president a little like Trump—uncompromising, willing to call political adversaries out as hypocrites—if she or he had pursued liberal policies.
As in South Africa, myths we’ve long been telling ourselves about our country have been coming apart—that we’re united, that we’re fair, that the people who attain power and respectability in our society are, thanks to our values, likely to be good people.
Much like South Africa after its liberation, the United States surged into the 1990s in a triumphal mood. Francis Fukuyama wrote, “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War ... but the end of history as such,” a time when “all prior contradictions are resolved and all human needs are satisfied.” Bill Clinton assured us that free trade would benefit all Americans. Economists and web designers talked of the coming of a technocratic utopia. “Equality between the sexes,” proclaimed one op-ed in The New York Times, had been “accomplished,” and in high school, my friends and I learned that racism was obsolete. America was so confident, outwardly, it invaded Iraq presuming it could redesign it from scratch with a 24-year-old Yale grad at the head of its stock exchange.
But all was not actually well. The contradictions of modern American democracy we’d tried to convince ourselves had been vanquished—racism, sexism, Gilded Age-style consumerist excess, the merging of the political class with the economic elite, hubris abroad—remained entrenched. The same year Clinton won the presidency, Los Angeles exploded in violence after the police beat Rodney King. After an affair, Clinton was impeached with great moral righteousness by men who were secretly conducting their own affairs, and he was succeeded as president by a so-called conservative who sank $2 trillion of his taxpayers’ money into a failed Middle East redecorating project. An opioid epidemic began to take root in areas devastated by the venture-capitalization of American business, the disappearance of manufacturing, and still-simmering racial tensions.
By the late 2000s and the Great Recession, it was clear that many of the things we were told by the people we were expected to trust might not be true. Trust in government fell dramatically—and not just trust in government, but trust in doctors and journalists and academics and every kind of arbiter of political and societal norms. And it was deserved. Financiers escaped consequences for the recession. The media helped lead America into the Iraq War. Political discourse itself seemed, more than ever, to be built on a foundation of utter bullshit. Self-described “conservatives” blew up the deficit while a “liberal” president bailed out robber barons. We wanted change. Radical change. Remember that?
After ousting their new president, South Africans turned back to the kind of leader they had felt so bitter about a decade ago. But unlike Zuma, Ramaphosa didn’t make a show of his corruption. His closest political ally is the now-deputy president, a former provincial governor so sleazy he’s been credibly accused of stealing money meant for poor schools and faces questions about his role in political assassinations. But Ramaphosa takes care not to appear in public with his consigliere too often. At least, the journalist Tshidi Madia told me, Ramaphosa “keeps it”—his corruption—“quiet.”
It was as if the South Africans who fought against Zuma had subtly shifted their goalpost from a wish for truly new leadership to a lesser, more cynical ambition: to have leaders that simply had the decency to conceal their wrongdoing. “I wanted Ramaphosa to win,” my friend Palesa told me. “I just wanted to breathe a little bit. Do you know what I mean? Is our president self-interested, or a traitor? Neither is good, but I started to feel one was a little better.” Madia told me that because South Africans’ aspirations—for more economic justice, for less racism, for less worship of a far-off Western standard of leadership and life—had become associated with such a tainted vehicle, Zuma, these deeper yearnings for change became “a bit discredited.” If a more “authentic” president had been such a nightmare, maybe more authenticity itself was not worth aiming for.
Zuma had been a nearly unmitigated disaster. But the things some people had hoped he would do—such as rejecting the old elites’ kowtowing to the Davos crowd, fighting the political class’s deepening hypocrisy, telling hard but refreshing truths, enacting more economically redistributive policies—hadn’t been silly or wrong. They were necessary. They remain necessary. But the interesting thing—and remember my friend Palesa’s numbness—is people are no longer as convinced that they are. In the course of the fight against Zuma, South Africans’ commitment to certain important democratic institutions that he attacked, like the judiciary, deepened. But other, crucial commitments—such as the conviction that a healthy democracy should provide fair opportunities for all, and that politicians should be expected to do some actual good—were weakened. South Africans thought they had won, but in some sense, they had also been defeated.
After Zuma, Tshidi Madia, once an ardent idealist, radically shifted her expectations for her country. She seemed to have accepted that its politics—that its society—was profoundly corrupted. She showed me some pictures she had on her phone of Ramaphosa’s ally, the one who allegedly arranged hits on his political opponents. She had met him a few times and thought he was cute.
“I adore him,” she confessed. “They call him ‘The Cat,’ since he’s sly. We get along really well!” She laughed shyly. “He has the most beautiful smile. I can’t believe I’m saying that.”
She recognized that there was something sad about rewarding just-barely-less-bad-than-Jacob Zuma as virtue. But South Africans were so burnt out by the existential fight they pitched against Zuma, and so desperate to see the leader who came after him as good, that they blinded themselves to Ramaphosa’s iniquity. Ramaphosa’s behavior with the platinum mine was disturbing, she said, but “nobody wants to hear about it. South Africans want to have a head of state they think they can believe in.”
It’s hard to imagine, right now, that America could become more cynical after Donald Trump’s departure from the Oval Office. An assumption underlies the ferocity of the left’s resistance to Trump—that it would be deeply meaningful to defeat him, a sign that America still has some humanity and virtue left in her.
But in South Africa it has turned out somewhat the opposite. In the course of their battle, Zuma’s adversaries found themselves defending some of the very institutions—the press, academic economics, “politics as usual,” and the whole language with which the country described itself and its moral framework—that they had recognized, prior to his presidency, were badly compromised. In the process, a renewed, slightly bizarre aura of righteousness settled around certain political norms, traditions, and institutions that hadn’t been so great, but briefly looked that way. South Africans concerned with public virtue staunchly defended the media despite its enduring sloppiness, pomposity, and obsession with shock value. They lauded elite prognostications despite their racism and classism. They touted the value of “political norms” despite these norms’ historic tendency to reward smooth-speaking crooks who did very little for their constituents. It wasn’t so easy, after Zuma fell, just to revert to their former zeal for something different.
Many Americans have also found themselves attacking Trump for things that, before his rise, they had wanted. Like abandoning outdated alliances and forging new ones. (Eighteen years ago, The New York Times editorialized in favor of “a closer engagement” with Russia and Putin.) Like bucking norms, and even laws, that no longer serve truth and justice. (As Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning did.) Like jettisoning politeness and protocol and strong-arming Congress to achieve effects. (“There is something in the modern Democrat that abhors the raw exercise of power as a little bit, I don’t know, vulgar,” Timothy Noah complained in the NEW REPUBLIC in 2012, calling for a less accommodating approach.)
People who suggest that the Trump phenomenon has been driven, at least in part, by dissatisfactions that even the people who hate him share are pilloried. But it’s true: We’ve all felt fury at how America parades around with self-righteous armies in foreign lands while neglecting problems at home. We’ve all hated the way elites sunnily press aspects of globalization that turn out to benefit only themselves. We’ve all felt bitterness toward “experts” who claim their opinions are the only possible truths, lead millions to ruin, and dance away unharmed. We’ve all grown disillusioned with a media that insists it be treated as a kind of oracle, blameless and objective, while concealing its inevitable biases, its susceptibility to the pressures of advertisers and trendiness. We’re all tired of politicians who spout an increasingly indistinguishable stream of pabulum, never doing anything—well, vulgar. All of these problems have been figurative Diepsloots for America for a while now, dangers that we try to hide from our view, but we always know are there.
The way Trump has addressed these dissatisfactions may not be, to put it mildly, to everybody’s taste. Like Jacob Zuma, he is in all probability a dangerous criminal. But Palesa told me she now regretted, somewhat, the single-mindedness of her opposition to Jacob Zuma, instead of focusing on the country’s broader social and political problems. Some of the hopes Zuma initially appeared to embody are still, in fact, legitimate, though it now feels clear his intentions were never good, she said. She wished South Africa had realized that Zuma might not be the only—nor even, long term, the worst—threat to South Africa.
Trump is so triggering to so many Americans that it’s nearly impossible to simply say tone it down to his adversaries, but Palesa implied that it was necessary. “It took all my energy,” she said of battling Zuma. Afterward, she had so little left, even though his ouster left so many problems unresolved.
Madia agreed. “We don’t really believe inequality will be resolved anymore,” she told me. In her reporting, she still visited “the poorest of the poor, and heard the most heartbreaking stories. But sometimes I get the sense that they, too, know now there might not be an answer.” I see America rallying around the blamelessness of institutions like the press, and I fear we might regret what dissatisfactions and skepticisms and hungers for difference we might drive from ourselves as we try to drive Donald Trump from our politics. All the anti-Trump defenses of “norms” in America startled Palesa. In South Africa and America, “norms” are as often bad as they are good. Norms kept Rosa Parks at the back of the bus.
The wholesale rejection of Trump risks, by default, ending up with a renewed commitment to the problematic status quo that generated Trump in the first place. With a resignation to something broken. Madia, the journalist, had another theory. Maybe as a society, she mused, consciously or unconsciously, South Africans had actually chosen a doomed vehicle for the correction they needed but that also terrified them—so that his failure could reassure them that such profound but unsettling change was, in fact, impossible. That they had to live with the world as it was. That there was no other alternative.
Maybe South Africans hadn’t fully wanted change, not deep down. Maybe they were more ambivalent. Maybe the chance to turn against a leader and reject all that he stood for was what they had wanted.
It’s an unsettling idea to apply to the American case, but not without resonance. The response to Trump, among his opponents, is so uniform, so violent. Madia told me that both reactions—Americans’ to Trump and South Africans’ to Zuma—reminded her of the scapegoat in traditional Jewish culture: a living goat that was heaped with symbols of the community’s sins and sent into the wilderness, as if its banishment could absolve everybody. Most traditional cultures practice some form of ritual expulsion of feared members of the community; there seems to be something human in it. The political stoning of Zuma served to confirm many South Africans’ sense of their own virtue—ironic, because his presidency had been intended to effect exactly the opposite, a communal reckoning.
After we left KFC, Mothakge and I climbed the ridge that divides Diepsloot from finer neighborhoods to its southwest. Instead of the land seizures that Mothakge had once hoped for, there was a new, gated housing development with a preposterously giant, faux-Roman aqueduct. It had been built by Douw Steyn, a billionaire white insurance broker who’d been friends with Mandela. It speaks to an increased public shamelessness in contemporary South Africa that he named it “Steyn City,” after himself. Houses there cost in the millions of dollars. There’s a golf course, a private school, and a restaurant that serves an appetizer of Falklands calamari that costs nearly a farm laborer’s whole daily wage.
The entry gate, visible from Diepsloot, looks like the Jefferson Memorial on steroids, a four-story up-lit rotunda with dancing fountains. We got in my car, drove down to the entrance, and walked around. A black security guard shooed away two young women who were trying to take photos of themselves there. The guard was happy to let me, a white person in a car, drive in alone, but he wouldn’t let in Mothakge, who was walking. “These are the rules,” he said, citing “regulations” of the estate. “I don’t make them.”
Mothakge wasn’t as upset by this as I was. Ten years ago, the pervasiveness of racism throughout South African society had helped Zuma win the presidency. It’s still pervasive, but Mothakge seemed to have accepted its permanence—even its validity. He seemed to have acquired some of the subtle contempt for black people that had previously so hurt and offended him. “Here in Diepsloot, people survive, but if you were to say, ‘Let’s go out and look for a job,’ 50 percent of the people won’t do it,” he said disdainfully.
A friend of his named Armstrong Nombaba, whom we met later, agreed. “Now the bozza”—the old apartheid word black people used for their white bosses—
“has arrived in the house,” he said, referring to Ramaphosa. “So, our president is the friend of the white people—is it wrong? A few might be saying, ‘No, you can’t trust it, he’s a friend of whites.’” This narrow-mindedness among blacks, he judged, was unintelligent. He even said he concurred with Trump’s appraisal that South Africa is a “shithole.”
Before we left Steyn City, I had the idea to take a photograph of Mothakge in front of one its high walls, looking over, to capture both what he’d said to me years ago about feeling shut out of the better world and the will he showed, then, to storm those barriers. We found one. He agreed to pose, but he was half-smiling the whole time, as if he privately thought the image was now a bit absurd.
“I want to live with white people,” he said. He chuckled wryly, but not entirely unhappily. I thought of what Madia said: that the poor now know there’s no answer. It’s sad, but a relief, too. The status quo turned out to be the devil they knew. A different world was the devil they didn’t.
“If I’m to be liberated, I must just do and be like the white people,” Mothakge said. South Africans would have to aim for the most glaringly opulent way of life for themselves—or at least pretend they could have it, or fantasize about it. He called this “the way we want to be like the Americans.”