From racist runts to Trump twittery, it’s the year of living dangerously
In the Americas, Brexit-addled Britain, China and Africa, 2019 has begun very badly indeed
The year 2019 began pretty much as it will end. It started with the installation of a far-right, racist, homophobic populist leader in Brazil and the rantings of an unstable president in the US – and it will most probably end with the world on a more uncertain footing than it is now.
Political ructions across the globe and in SA mean that our world will behave much as the rand did this past week: “Flash” crashes and recoveries, hope and despair, greater wealth for the few and deeper poverty for the many while economic and political uncertainty sets in.
In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro was inaugurated on New Year’s Day after he was elected to the presidency on a far-right ticket promising radical change. He has not wasted time. In his first few hours in office he targeted Brazil’s indigenous groups, descendants of African slaves, and the LGBT community with executive orders that curtailed their access to land and limited their rights. He fired 300 civil servants he considered to be enemies and started loosening the law to give police in Rio the right to “shoot to kill”.
In the US, President Donald Trump’s first tweet of the year continued his combative, divisive style. Retired army general Stanley McChrystal, the former top commander of US and international forces in Afghanistan, was asked in an interview on December 30 whether he would work for Trump. He said he would not, calling Trump “shady” and “immoral”.
Trump responded in a tweet: “‘General’ McChrystal got fired like a dog by Obama. Last assignment a total bust. Known for big, dumb mouth. Hillary lover!”
It would have been shocking if it had come from any other world leader. For Trump, who has made Twitter insults his stock in trade, it was just an indication that he would continue to behave as he has over the past two years of his presidency.
He faces a problem, though. Two days after his tweet the opposition Democrats indicated that they would be doing everything in their power to use their control of the House of Representatives to stall his legislative agenda. Further, even his allies are getting tired of his policy flip-flopping and poor grasp of foreign policy.
The usually Trump-supporting Wall Street Journal lambasted Trump this week after he said “the reason Russia was in Afghanistan (in 1979) was because terrorists were going into Russia” and that “they were right to be there”.
The newspaper said it could not “recall a more absurd misstatement of history by an American president”. It claimed the Soviet Union actually invaded Afghanistan “to prop up a fellow communist government”.
Thus started 2019 in the Americas, and so is it, thematically, in many other parts of the globe. Europe looks a proper mess. Brexit is an utter disaster whether the UK stays in the European Union half-heartedly or opts for a “hard Brexit”. The departure of leaders of the calibre of Angela Merkel of Germany has allowed the right-wing runts of Italy, France and other EU states to feel emboldened and push for their economically ruinous and racist policies.
China and Russia are locked in all manner of conflicts, ranging from influence contests in Africa, trade battles with the US and others and possible military action in countries such as the Ukraine. Deterioration on any of these fronts – if Russia invades the Ukraine, for example – will lead to increased global tensions.
The African continent has some bright lights and some duds: Botswana continues to be a jewel and Ethiopia is excitingly on the mend. Zimbabwe continues to be an economic and political disaster. Emmerson Mnangagwa, as some of us predicted, is a Mugabe-esque wolf in sheep’s clothing. The Democratic Republic of Congo remains on a knife edge as it seeks a replacement for Joseph Kabila and a path to inclusive prosperity.
Yet Africa’s tragedy is that it hasn’t had a harmonised continental economic recovery and political plan since the departure of Thabo Mbeki and Olusegun Obasanjo from the political centre stage. China and the West rule. It’s too sad for words.
SA will go to elections, probably in May. It will be noisy, divisive and combative. One hopes that as we vote we remember that the economy has ground to a halt and young people are unemployed. That’s what will really matter in this divided, uncertain, turbulent and dangerous year.