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Black and white South Africans weigh in on U.S. election

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – "America is used to being ruled by a white president," Lucky Mathye, a 22-year-old police reservist told me in the suburbs of Johannesburg. "America looks like a worldwide boss. They want all the power in the world and they don't want to share it. Maybe [Barack] Obama will be a peacemaker."

South Africans of all colors are watching the upcoming U.S. elections very closely. America is the world's oldest constitutional democracy, while South Africa is one of the youngest.

Image:Lucky Mathye
Hamilton Wende
Lucky Mathye is paying close attention to the U.S. election from Johannesburg, South Africa.

Yet, the parallels between the two countries are often striking, and sometimes ironic. Both countries have a history of segregation and racism. America has a white majority and black minority; in South Africa it is the other way around.

Looking for a change
While the brutal system of minority rule known as apartheid was at its height in South Africa in the 1960s, the United States led the way toward racial equality at home with leaders such as Martin Luther King speaking out against legal segregation and prejudice. With the election of Nelson Mandela as president of a democratic South Africa in 1994, the nation joined the United States in the global struggle against racism and for human freedom.

But, as Lucky pointed out to me, many South Africans have lost their respect for Washington following the war in Iraq and global economic meltdown, which many blame on the United States.

"I like [John] McCain," said Simon Ngobeni said. The 29-year-old is a driver and domestic worker who came to Johannesburg from the poverty-stricken northern region of South Africa to look for work for him and his wife Bongi and their small daughter Princess. "But those Republicans are the ones that have been governing now for the last 10 years, so I think a change would be good."

Image:Simon Ngobeni
Hamilton Wende
Simon Ngobeni, a truck driver in South Africa, has strong opinions about the U.S. presidential election.

Race – still a pervasive issue
Many Americans appear reticent about discussing race, preferring not to mention the subject at all, or speaking in carefully coded phrases where the true meaning of what is meant is obvious, but difficult to pin down in an exact sense.

Here in South Africa, the history of racial conflict has been so clear and such a pervasive reality that talking about race is much more open. The divisions between black and white have been such an undeniable truth of the society for over 350 years that people here prefer to acknowledge their existence rather than to pretend that they don't exist. 

And Simon is no exception. Without my even asking, the black South African brought up the subject himself. "I don't care whether McCain is white or Barack Obama is black. In America there is a good democracy so black and white is the same."

Lucky, on the other hand, is perhaps a little less sure that race doesn't matter in the presidential elections, or certainly in its meaning for America's place in the broader world, or for troubled countries on the continent like neighboring Zimbabwe.

"Obama is black, so he will be better for Africa. All African countries will support him, even Mugabe," said Lucky, also a black South African who was referring to President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. He paused to make his point clearer. "Mugabe hates white people because he thinks they are crooks and they want to steal his land. But with Obama maybe he will negotiate a settlement." Under Mugabe's leadership, white-owned farms were seized by the government with the stated aim of benefiting landless black Zimbabweans, but instead, sharp declines in production have left the agricultural-based economy in tatters and many Zimbabweans are struggling to get by or have fled the country.

'Obama will be better for us in Africa'
A few streets away I spoke to IT consultant Christian Barr, 35, in his small home office, surrounded by his two black Labradors "Cisco" and "Google."  As a white South African, who once served in the country's armed forces during the last years of the violent and chaotic transition to democracy, he knows from first-hand experience just how painful change has been here.  

Image: Christian Barr
Hamilton Wende
Christian Barr follows the ins and outs of the U.S. election from Johannesburg, South Africa.

"There's always more about Barack Obama on the Internet than there is about John McCain – so that tells you something right away.  I think he will be the first black president of America, and that is something to consider when you think of our history here in South Africa," Christian said.

"Obama will be better for us in Africa.  I am concerned about the conservative Americans – the Midwest states, they might vote for McCain. Whatever happens, though, Africans must come up with their own inventive ways to benefit from the U.S." he added.

As might be expected, Obama wins hands down in the popularity stakes among South Africans of all races. A Reader's Digest Global Poll of over 17,000 people in 17 countries found overwhelming support for Obama in South Africa in particular – with 70 percent supporting the Illinois senator over McCain.

And as a journalist who travels frequently across the continent, I've seen widespread support for Obama among Africans of all stripes. In fact, a BBC World Service poll found 82 percent of respondents supported Obama in Kenya – not surprising since it was the birthplace of his father. But Obama was also favored by 71 percent of respondents in Nigeria – sub-Saharan Africa's most populous nation.

For Africans it is simple, as Lucky said in a final thought:  "We want to taste the fruit of a black president!"

Click here for complete coverage of Decision '08 on msnbc.com