Both countries have great wealth and staggering inequality. Both countries have political systems plagued by institutionalized, legal corruption. South Africa’s government has been controlled by the Black majority for nearly twenty years since the official downfall of apartheid. The USA, too, has a Black president. But both countries retain the poison of racism in their political and economic circulatory systems. Can either really be called a “democracy?”
That was the question raised by Daniel Weeks in a talk last night at South Congregational Church in Concord. Weeks, a former President of Americans for Campaign Reform, has been living in South Africa, where he has found disturbing parallels with the flaws of his native land.
Dan Weeks talks with local residents.
Weeks knows that as a white foreigner it’s not his job to lead reform movements in his wife’s country. But he is learning from and lifting up the examples of South Africans, like members of the Treatment Action Campaign, who are protesting corruption and demanding health care for people with HIV/AIDS.
South Africa’s problems are perhaps more extreme than those we see here. Black majority rule – in the political system – has not greatly altered the economic realities for most Black South Africans, Weeks said. Fifty percent of the country’s population lives on less than $2 a day, and 25% live on less than a dollar. While all of the poorest South Africans are Black, not all Black South Africans are poor, he reported. A small number have been welcomed into the nation’s economic elite in a country he said is the most unequal on earth.
The USA, on the other hand, is the most unequal among “developed” nations. With poor Americans much less likely to vote, contribute to candidates, or otherwise get involved in the political process, inequality at this level means we can’t have a functioning democracy, Weeks said. Ten individuals, he said, donate as much to political campaigns as the poorest 99.9% of Americans. And citing the analysis of Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, Weeks noted that 10% of Black Americans can’t even vote and are barred from access to an array of federal benefits, due to criminal convictions.
Moreover, the role that private funds play in elections systems is a form of institutionalized corruption that is entirely legal in both countries.
Weeks is now traveling the USA to develop further insights into the realities of poverty and the intersection of economic and political inequality. He suggests a need for “radical integrity,” perhaps modeled on Doris “Granny D” Haddock, the woman who inspired his activism when he encountered her during his high school years.
Structural racism is hard to dislodge, he said. I hope he’ll return to Concord soon with more insights into how we can meet this challenge.