A love affair with America, threatened but thriving

Me listening to US diplomat Nick von Mertens at the Es’kia Mphahlele Community Library in Pretoria in May 2016

I’ve always wanted to be in the United States—if not live in it, then visit it. But during the rise of Donald Trump and the spate of reported mass shootings and killings of unarmed black men, I’m second-guessing that dream.

My love affair began the same way that of countless others began: watching, reading and listening to American culture; from the yellow New York taxi cabs and hip hop to the rustic blue jeans and expanse of wheat-coloured country. It’s obvious these pictures are pastoralised, but they still exert a powerful pull over the imagination of many.

During my high school years a group of Americans from the Anthony Robbins Foundation began building close ties with my school and eventually chose the five best-performing students in the entire school to mentor and groom for success. I was one of them. Among other great opportunities they threw at us, they flew us out to London, which was my first time out of the country. My infatuation with the shining city on a hill and the generous people from there had begun.

Listening to them speak in their distinct accent was in a way an affirmation of a sizeable part of childhood. Although some natives, like the ones I met at President Obama’s town hall at the University of Johannesburg in 2014, do come in what sounds like a caricatured variety. But in fact you’re hearing it unadulterated by the cool medium of your living room thousands of miles away.

I have been inside the US Embassy in Pretoria a dozen times and saw both Presidents Bush’s and Obama’s portraits hung on a wall deep inside the building that takes two metal detectors to reach (should I have mentioned that?). The discussions we had there centred around culture but mostly politics. Today I get much of my daily fix of hair-raising US politics from The Young Turks, the largest online news show in the world.  I have also given a couple of science talks at the Mae Jemison Reading Room in Mamelodi. The closest I’ve been to America is an interview for a Fulbright scholarship. If you’ve noticed I’m still here, so clearly that did not go well. So close, yet so far.

President Barack Obama speaks at a town hall at the University of Johannesburg in 2014 (I’m the snarling guy diagonal to the monitor)

Now, however, the disturbing news coming from the supposed land of the free is testing this dream of mine. If I thought the goings-on in my own country were depressing, those in America are positively disillusioning. My co-workers, I and the rest of the world are gaping as we contemplate how someone as hideous as Donald Trump, who has derided and disparaged Mexicans, Muslims and soldiers who were tortured or died out of love of country, could find his way to a presidential debate and have a 50% chance of becoming the most powerful man in the world. You would think this implausible in a country that has been the most successful experiment of democracy for 240 years.

This only illustrates a quality I have noticed: America is a place of extremes. While this is true of many countries, they don’t rival it in the sheer sizes of economy and population, and they are not as prominent on the world stage. Of course America is the only country where a sociopathic swindler and half-grown huckster could become a presidential nominee. Even dictators would blush at Trump’s fascist tendencies. But I shouldn’t slide into American exceptionalism, even if from such an inglorious approach. It wasn’t in America where a head of state was found by courts of various levels to have flouted the laws so often and with such glaring plainness.


I should temper my disillusionment with America with what I know from journalism, which is that the frequency of news stories focusing on a particular thing does not necessarily correlate with the actual frequency of those events. In one of my first lessons in journalism class, we learned about a study that showed that after a cycle of news stories on mad cow disease in meat subsided, the sale of beef shot up again. It was as though the public believed the meat no longer carried the disease because it was not reported on any longer.

This disconnect between the news and reality explains away my fears only partly, because it’s not just borne of the current political climate in the United States. It’s also the acute crony capitalism that took root in the late 1970s, the difficulty of acquiring a visa and holding onto a job in the richest country in the world, and the fact that workers there are still paid their salaries in cheques. Then there’s there the small complication that America is not technically a democracy, at least not if it persists with the electoral college, in which there is a possibility that electors could vote not in the way the American people did; they ‘almost always’ do, among a whole host of other problems. But here I might be pedantic and needlessly puristic. Further, these are at least ordinary teething problems a fledgling country might face. If it should aspire to regain anything resembling its fullest height, America should repudiate those elements whose absence in certain forms distinguished it from the worst fascist tendencies littered throughout the 20th century.

In spite of all these problems, and as has been pointed out often, many still flock to America for a piece of the Dream. I remain one of them and, if I’m fortunate enough to wind up there, hope to find a gracious and welcoming place, not a poster at JFK with a Soviet-style profile of Donald Trump in all its red—or rather—orange-tinged glory.


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