An Ordinary Country?
When we close the books on 2020, it will be measured not just in tragic loss of life to covid-19, but by a summer of Black Lives Matter protests, and the continued decline of democracy worldwide. Amid these trends, my thoughts have turned to the late Dr. Neville Alexander, the anti-Apartheid activist and political prisoner, who supervised my Fulbright year. He was a man who knew something about protest and democracy.
A “coloured” intellectual, Dr. Alexander grew up in rural Eastern Cape, attended the University of Cape Town, and traveled abroad to the University of Tübingen for his PhD. Rather than live the life of a European academic, he returned to South Africa in the early 1960s to join the anti-Apartheid movement. In 1963, after the authorities infiltrated two activist groups he had founded, Dr. Alexander was convicted of conspiracy to commit sabotage, and imprisoned, alongside Nelson Mandela and others, on Robben Island.
By the time I met Dr. Alexander, South Africa was still in its first decade of democracy, but he hadn’t shed his dissident’s outlook. A committed Marxist, he vocally criticized the ANC for neglecting the poor, not to mention its “superstitious” approach to a raging AIDS epidemic. He regarded me, a State Department-funded American, with some skepticism, and once teasingly suggested I must be a CIA mole—a joke, once suspects, that masked a hard-earned circumspection.
Dr. Alexander held sharp views about America’s role in the world, and he would occasionally unspool an indictment of American imperialism in our meetings. For him, American Exceptionalism was propaganda; the U.S. was no City on a Hill.
A little less predictably, he thought the same about South Africa. He rejected the “rainbow nation” rhetoric as glib, arguing that South African Exceptionalism was every bit as illusory as America’s. South Africa’s destiny, he posited, was to become an “Ordinary Country”—also the title of a book he authored—shackled by its racist past and held down by the ANC’s embrace of free market economics. The continent’s autocratic patterns would eventually tug at the ANC’s elites, he thought, who would struggle to fight an out-of-control epidemic. This was an unpopular view at the time. I admit I found it unnecessarily gloomy.
Now, twenty years later, in the midst of a global pandemic when Freedom House gauges that democracy is in decline, I cannot help but wonder whether Dr. Alexander’s dire predictions for South Africa presaged some of what besets the U.S. today: Pandemic denialism, widespread protests on race and justice, and authoritarian and nationalist strains in our political discourse. If he were alive today, I fear Dr. Alexander would be writing a second volume about another “ordinary country”—my own.
But Dr. Alexander was not a knee-jerk pessimist, and I owe it to him to share an anecdote that proves it. One day, we were discussing contemporary South African politics. Dr. Alexander diverted from the topic to tell me his “only crime” under Apartheid was to join a study group and that Robben Island was “actually fun.”
I was surprised. Neither of these assertions was true. Though I’d agree he was morally innocent for resisting Apartheid, his “just a study group” defense was a bit rich. Despite some silver linings, Robben Island was a brutal place—something that Dr. Alexander has acknowledged in published interviews. But I think I know what he was doing. He intended these misdirections provocatively, theatrically, even defiantly, as if still sticking his thumb in the eye of the oppressor.
Yet the choice was curiously atemporal. Why relitigate the past when you’ve already won history? What did Robben Island have to do with the problems of the new South Africa, a country quite literally run by the men once imprisoned there? The answer is that, to Dr. Alexander, majority rule was a milestone rather than a finish line. In his mind, the transition from Apartheid to democracy was forever a work in progress, so it made perfect sense to marshal his anti-Apartheid past in a critique of his democratic government. It was all a single fight for him, and he would never stop fighting. There is nothing more optimistic than that.
I still believe America is a City on a Hill. But in an era when democracy is under threat, we may have to fight like South Africans to keep it that way.
Fulbright to South Africa – 2002