We arrived in the USA in January 1989 as the result of a series of accidents and choices. Had things worked out differently, I would have been taking up a job I had applied for (but never got) at Wits University. It’s amazing to think sometimes how the forking paths of life’s developments go. If this, then that, then something else. Probably we would have been living in Johannesburg, and my teaching, perhaps my writing, would have been completely different. Our children would have grown up there. We would have seen Nelson Mandela emerge from prison, would have voted in South Africa instead of Washington DC, as we did in the first free and democratic election of 1994. We would have rejoiced directly in that transition, and no doubt regretted the disappointments that came after. The corruption of the Zuma years would have rankled. Perhaps we would have been gazing at horizons, wistfully thinking that we should have gone to the USA after all.
So many ‘would haves’ and ‘perhapses’. But we didn’t, and it never happened except in some alternative universe where we live other lives, or in the imagination where the migrant’s mind always seems to run on a double channel, both realities streaming concurrently.
But of all the thoughts that have come up since then, the current one on my mind is particularly rueful. And that is, when we left apartheid behind, I never dreamed that I would ever again live in a system of minority rule. Yet that is exactly what we now face in the USA. Sadly, the American constitution is so lopsided that it has come to virtually guarantee minority dominance in just about everything that matters. The electoral college system means that Presidents are not elected by popular vote. The Senate is similarly tilted. Systems of gerrymandering mean that Republicans who control their states more or less guarantee their election to Congress. A President who lost the popular vote was able to install three Supreme Court justices who, unless something changes dramatically, will probably decide our futures for a long time to come. As for the method of appointing those justices, the supremely cynical machinations of Mitch McConnell ensured that Barack Obama was not able to get his own appointment in the final year of his term. The results of all this are now everywhere to see. Roe vs Wade is gone; guns are everywhere; climate change hurtles on, with minimal possibility of counteracting it.
It was Archimedes who once declared that given a long enough lever and a fulcrum, he could move the world. In the US context, the Republicans now have both that lever and the fulcrum, and our futures have been left hanging in the balance. Was our path a good one in coming here? Should we have faced all the uncertainties and complications of staying in South Africa? When an empire is in decline, it is faced with a choice. Either rage against the future and try to reconstruct an imagined past, or take the opportunity of letting it all go and fixing the things that need to be fixed. What will the USA choose? One thing is for certain: minority rule will guarantee the worst outcomes.