US president-elect Joe Biden. Picture: LEAH MILLIS
US president-elect Joe Biden. Picture: LEAH MILLIS

It’s a sign of the times that there is genuine concern about whether the transfer of power in the world’s longest continuous democracy will go on without incident.          

US democracy hasn’t been as perfect as Americans themselves have imagined it to be, but it has been a beacon for others, despite its weaknesses.

For many nations, including those in Africa, the US was often cited as an alternative to aspire to as a succession of strongmen from Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe to Yoweri Museveni in Uganda sought to cling to power at all costs. For more than 200 years, the US has had peaceful transitions. 

That shortly after Museveni’s sham victory in Uganda, the world should be waiting with bated breath ahead of Joe Biden’s inauguration on Wednesday is a powerful symbol of the damage Donald Trump has inflicted on the US’s standing.

The new president will be sworn in two weeks after supporters of his predecessor mobbed the US Congress and threatened elected officials. The rioting left five people dead, including a police officer who was hit with a fire extinguisher.

Due to the Covid-19 outbreak, the inauguration of Biden and his deputy, Kamala Harris, is set to be a low-key event, without the big crowds of the past. Washington DC is expected to become a no-go area, with about 25,000 troops deployed to guard against potential violence.

And there’s enough reason to be concerned. The ease with which the Trump-inspired mob was able to infiltrate the seat of government has raised genuine concern about how far the reaches of the conspiracy theorists and would-be revolutionaries go within law enforcement and home security. 

The Guardian newspaper reported on Tuesday that fears of an insider attack were such that thousands of military personnel were being subjected to vetting by the FBI ahead of the event. In the wake of the January 6 attacks, a number of officers have been suspended, accused of collaborating with the rioters. That there is doubt that US troops can be trusted to keep their soon-to-be commander in chief safe is just one thing that can be listed among Trump’s toxic legacy.

Once this initial challenge has been successfully negotiated, the new US president will have plenty on his plate. Domestically, his priority would be to give the Covid-19 pandemic, which has already left close to 400,000 Americans dead, the seriousness it deserves and which was absent during Trump’s presidency, a factor cited for his ultimately decisive loss. 

There are indications already that a flurry of executive orders will be signed, reversing Trump’s most damaging policies, notably on climate change. Internationally, Biden also has to deal with the fallout from the trade war with China. Trump preferred the company of strongmen such as North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, at the expense of the US’s traditional allies, and the new administration will be keen to fix those relationships.

To say SA will struggle to get attention is an understatement. In our relations with the world’s most powerful nation and biggest economy, SA hasn’t done itself any favours. Our government has amassed a long record of siding with unsavoury governments and an instinct to thumb its nose at the traditional powers, despite them still being SA’s biggest source of investment. 

If this is the start of a new beginning for the US, we would urge President Cyril Ramaphosa to be proactive in building bridges and set a new tone in SA’s relationships with that country. One of the ways to do that is to show that SA is prepared to stand up for democracy in Africa and restore the country’s international standing. 

Among the list of what not to do, sending a congratulatory message to Museveni would be near the top. With himself having seen off an attempt to steal his election victory, SA endorsing somebody who succeeded in doing exactly that probably won’t make a good first impression on the US’s new leader.

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