In 2012, as a fellow at Yale University, I met an earnest and articulate American graduate student. I found her guileless patriotism touching; she regularly used phrases to describe America as “the greatest democracy on earth,” with “the best political system on the planet.”
Initially, I discounted the hyperbole. But it became clear she really meant it. One afternoon, this young Californian was reduced to tears when others in our program pushed her to explain why she believed America was the greatest nation on earth.
I was suddenly struck by the fact that no one else in the class felt the need to assert their country’s greatness or the superiority of its political system. The Indian, the South African, the Frenchman and the Englishwoman in the seminar room could all have claimed the mantle of “greatest” for some aspect of their countries’ democratic systems. Yet none needed to; indeed, we found the very idea absurd.
My American friend was no exception, of course, in her view of American exceptionalism, yet little in her elite training had equipped her to think critically about the place the United States occupies in the world. Still, I felt for her: As a South African, I am sympathetic to the temptations of national exceptionalism.
While other societies have had race-based discriminatory systems, none held on to them as long as mine. The white minority government in apartheid South Africa was distinctive, and it has had a lasting effect on the region it controlled for centuries. In turn, no other society has received as much attention as South Africa for its efforts to address this legacy of hatred and segregation.
The South African story of exceptionalism is rooted in the idea that a nation able to overcome apartheid through a peaceful process of compromise can beat the odds, time and again. This founding myth of the post-apartheid nation says that a constitutional democracy geared toward giving rights to a black population that has been able to forgive its white oppressors is built for survival.
In recent years, South Africa’s rising levels of economic inequality — which continue to run along race lines — have tested this theory. Led by an ossifying ruling party that seems perpetually enmeshed in corruption scandals, South Africans have begun to question the story their leadership has told them about who they are and what their democracy stands for.
Beleaguered South Africans are beginning to realize they can no longer rely on the political class to guarantee their democratic rights — to credible media, peaceful assembly, even freedom to dissent without fear of reprisal. There is a new wariness here among many who once believed the nation was destined for greatness based on the inspirational, if sentimental, story line of forgiveness, truth and reconciliation that marked the country’s first democratic decade.
South Africans are beginning to reclaim their power over a sentimental mythology about forgiveness and racial harmony that has been, for at least a decade, inauthentic and out of step with the realities of most people’s lives. They have accepted that the exceptionalism of South Africa’s rosy story of transformation to a rainbow nation has threatened to undermine their capacity to challenge authority and ask deeper questions.
Although we, too, have our demagogues who would whip up popular resentments to advance their own bids for power, this skepticism has given rise to a series of campaigns and political movements that are beginning to serve as a bulwark against the anti-intellectual and undemocratic tendencies of South Africa’s deeply compromised president, Jacob G. Zuma.
For many people who fought against apartheid, this means taking up the battle cry again, this time protesting and organizing against leaders who talk exceptionalism while behaving in utterly mediocre ways. South Africans made this dissatisfaction clear in recent local government elections, in which the ruling party lost control of the largest metropolitan areas in the country for the first time since the end of apartheid.
Beyond the ballot box, the student movement brought the country to a standstill last year and in recent months over the crisis in funding for higher education. The nascent Save South Africa movement is another sign of stirring dissent, if as yet an elite one. Like the activism in defense of the country’s former public protector, Thuli Madonsela, who clashed with Mr. Zuma and continues to be a thorn in his side, Save South Africa has support across race lines.
The new spirit of revolt has also given rise to innovative citizen campaigns like AmandlaMobi, a digital platform that connects activists who are organizing against inequality. Running through these initiatives is an acknowledgment that things in South Africa are not “great,” and that if the country is exceptional, we will have to prove it.
I have not forgotten my American friend’s idealism — it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that America, for all its flaws, can be great. America is truly great when Americans of principle and conscience organize themselves to defend its constitutional values.
Many Americans have balked at President-elect Donald J. Trump’s aggressive assertion of exceptionalism. Those of us who hail from countries where exceptionalism and nationalism jostle uncomfortably close together recognize this hollow and dangerous populism that makes “greatness” divisive rather than inspirational. Mr. Trump’s greatest gift to America may be to remind us that all democracies are equal in this respect: They’re strongest and best when people rise to defend themselves against those who threaten to stifle their freedoms.
This is what South Africans are doing now. Just as Poles, Indians, the French and the peoples of many nations have done in the past. I trust Americans will, too.
Sisonke Msimang is a South African writer whose work appears in the essay collection The Ties That Bind: Race and the Politics of Friendship in South Africa.