Australian correspondent Geoff Norman tells his readers back home about how, on a distant continent, a holy man politician-cum-prophet has turned massive crowds of primitive indigenes into worshipers expecting miracles.
It was early 1994 when Nelson Mandela gave a speech in a slum outside Cape Town and spoke in grand terms of a new beginning and how when he was elected president every household would have a washing machine.
People took him literally. A few months later he became South Africa’s first black president. That’s when clerks in department stores in Cape Town had to turn people away demanding their free washer and dryer.
Having spent some time as a reporter in South Africa watching the Mandela presidency I was reminded of that story this week when I travelled with Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama on the campaign trail. …
How does a cult figure, in the eyes of some something akin to a messiah, make the transition to a political frontrunner – president even – where disappointment will soon crush what seemed to be a journey to a promised land?
Looking into the faces of a more than 16,000-strong crowd in a basketball stadium in Hartford, Connecticut this week, the Mandela magic I’d seen before was there too. Black and white, and the youth; they appeared in a state close to rapture watching Obama speak. Here and there one could see women crying and the some men wiping away tears too.
It was not the promise of a washing machine, of course. Mandela was heading a Rainbow Revolution – a new governing coalition. The sense of renewal in those heady days in South Africa in the mid-’90s was palpable. A political and cultural boil was being lanced. There was relief and joy. Cape Town in those days was humming.
In the US today there are echoes of that Rainbow Revolution. Through the media and on the streets people are getting a bit giddy over Obama. In this man they are projecting a new course – one that he says he will lead – where the US buries the culture wars, charts a new course in bipartisan politics and heralds a new dawn for America. …
Obama is part politician, part cult. Supporters wearing T-shirts with an Andy Warhol like pop-art image of his face testify to that. But then they – him – were once easy to dismiss until people realised Obama’s charisma was being matched by one of the most sophisticated ground operations ever seen. It is one that is outsmarting the Clinton machine. He’s marrying inspiration and cult with old-fashioned political grunt.
One would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by Obama on the stump. It’s not so much by what he says but it’s the way the crowds respond to his words. When 16,000 people, without prompting, start shouting some of his keynote phrases as he delivers them, you know something special is going on.
The atmosphere at his events is such that one wonders if Obama is about to walk out with a basket with some loaves and fishes to feed the thousands.