Donald Trump. Picture: REUTERS/CARLO ALLEGRI
Donald Trump. Picture: REUTERS/CARLO ALLEGRI

The election of Donald Trump to the White House has been a cold shower not only to many Americans but also to myriad intelligent individuals committed to social transformation and justice the world over.

Many know very well that the mainstream neoliberal approach to economic development and politics, as well as the current version of globalisation, has created injustices and tensions. We also know that political systems, not only in the US, are rigged to favour special interests, corporate giants and lobbying, which often is the euphemism for legalised corruption. Yet we found it paradoxical that a man who embodies the most vicious aspects of global capitalism and a natural disrespect for social welfare and the working class can be viewed as the man of change.

The election of Trump has triggered a cascade effect throughout society, but not one of social transformation.

To the contrary, dominant forms of oppression are starting to become more accepted by society. Rather than moving forward, we seem to be catching up with the past. Racist movements, whether in the US or in Europe, feel emboldened by the election results, and they promise to replace neoliberalism with parochialism.

Violent ideas and remarks about minorities and women that would have been frowned upon a few years ago, are becoming more commonplace. Thus, fringe sentiments run the risk of becoming mainstream.

It is evident that most of Trump’s promises will not be kept. It is nonsensical and outrageously expensive to build a separation wall along the Mexican border and it is impossible to repatriate millions of immigrants. It would be possible to reform trade agreements (indeed, a debate about the desirability of certain forms of international trade is desperately needed) but a staunch capitalist such as Trump will not do it, let alone the Republicans around him. He obviously never meant what he promised, but most voters were gullible enough to believe him.

Although Trump presents himself as the anti-imperialist hero who would like to bring America back to America, patching up relations with the various Putins of the world, he may very well end up doing the opposite. We have seen it already. George W Bush was elected on the basis that he would disengage from the world after a decade of Clinton’s far-reaching ventures.

In fact, he became the US’s most imperialist president yet, with two international wars in Afghanistan and Iraq respectively. As Trump’s policies prove impossible to realise, he may be tempted to distract disgruntled US citizens by resorting to the most typical US political invention: the foreign enemy. It could be Iran or North Korea or any alleged stronghold of the Islamic State. Whichever site, it would be disastrous for humanity, which needs a lot of change, but certainly not another war.

There are a few things that Trump will be able to do. He will certainly push the US off the sustainability path by reactivating pipelines and oil explorations that Barack Obama had halted. Being directly supported by the oil lobbies, he will slow down the uptake of renewable energies. He will ridicule the hard-won climate change agreements, downplaying the US’s commitment to them and potentially triggering a negative chain reaction among the other big polluters, from China to India, which may not want to honour the pact if the US does not do it first.

Behaving like an elephant in a China shop, his nonexistent diplomatic skills will antagonise many leaders, even among those who have welcomed his election. His erratic policies and unpredictability will prolong global stagnation, knocking on to financial markets.

That many people have associated change with Trump is indicative of the poor quality of leaders, not only in the US but everywhere. At a time in which new approaches, new visions and innovative leadership are needed, the world is stuck with a bunch of boring administrators or incompetent lunatics.

Many South Africans may be keen to mock their North American counterparts, but the reality at home is no better.

The only possible response to this state of affairs is to become leaders ourselves.

Earlier in November the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition at Stellenbosch University held an inspiring workshop on the "seeds" of change in the Anthropocene — the current geological era in which humans have become the dominating factor. It has mapped a constellation of innovative projects, initiatives and networks across southern Africa aimed at changing society from the bottom up. These include new approaches to renewable energy, smart villages, alternative currencies, organic food and urban farming. Most of these initiatives may appear small, but through a network of connections and synergies they are emerging as a powerful organism across the region, with ramifications all over the globe.

Africa is replete with innovation, yet the conventional approach to development enforced by the Washington Consensus has traditionally suffocated it. If Trump keeps his promise to disengage from the developing world, there could be an opportunity for Africa to break free of some chains. However, South African political leaders are always so keen to find a new master that radical transformation is unlikely to come from the top. Once again, it may be the innovators on the ground who take the lead.

This is why our action-research network for a Wellbeing Economy in Africa has just launched a governance innovation laboratory, with more than 25 "change makers" from government, business, civil society and academia hailing from a variety of African countries.

For the next 12 months their job will be to re-imagine prosperity in Africa and to develop policies, new business ventures, social movements and applied solutions that can make the continent leap forward in a world that has become increasingly inward-looking.

When there is no real leadership at the top, citizens have no other option than to roll up their sleeves and make change happen through systematic collaboration across sectors and nations. The failure of political leaders may very well usher Africa’s citizens into the age of collective leadership.

Fioramonti (@lofioramonti) is director of GovInn at the University of Pretoria and a member of

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