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Beware of Groundhog Day: John Pilger how American politics is repeating history

Barack Obama is a politician of a system described by Martin Luther King as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world".

One of the cleverest films I have seen is Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray plays a TV weatherman who finds himself stuck in time. At first he deludes himself that the same day and the same people and the same circumstances offer new opportunities. Finally, his naivety and false hope desert him and he realises the truth of his predicament and escapes. Is this a parable for the age of Obama?

Having campaigned with "Change you can believe in", President-elect Barack Obama has named his A-team. They include Hillary Clinton, who voted to attack Iraq without reading the intelligence assessment and has since threatened to "totally obliterate" Iran on behalf of a foreign power, Israel. During his primary campaign, Obama referred repeatedly to Clinton's lies about her political record. When he appointed her secretary of state, he called her "my dear friend".

Obama's slogan is now "continuity". His secretary of defence will be Robert Gates, who serves the lawless, blood-soaked Bush regime as secretary of defence, which means secretary of war. (America last had to defend itself when the British invaded in 1812.) Gates wants no date set for an Iraq withdrawal and "well north of 20,000" troops to be sent to Afghanistan. He also wants America to build a completely new nuclear arsenal, including "tactical" nuclear weapons that blur the distinction with conventional weapons.

Another product of "continuity" is Obama's first choice for CIA chief, John Brennan, who shares responsibility for the systematic kidnapping and torturing of people, known as "extraordinary rendition". Obama has assigned Madeleine Albright to report on how to "strengthen US leadership in responding to genocide". Albright, as secretary of state, was largely responsible for the siege of Iraq in the 1990s, described by the UN's Denis Halliday as genocide.

There is more continuity in Obama's appointment of officials who will deal with the economic piracy that brought down Wall Street and impoverished millions. As in Bill Murray's nightmare, they are the same officials who caused it. For example, Lawrence Summers will run the National Economic Council. As treasury secretary, according to the New York Times, he "championed the law that deregulated derivatives, the . . . instruments - aka toxic assets - that have spread financial losses [and] refused to heed critics who warned of dangers to come".

There is logic here. Contrary to myth, Obama's campaign was funded largely by rapacious capital, such as Citigroup and others responsible for the sub-prime mortgage scandal, whose victims were mostly African Americans and other poor people.

Is this a grand betrayal? Obama has never hidden his record as a man of a system described by Martin Luther King as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today". Obama's dalliance as a soft critic of the disaster in Iraq was in line with most Establishment opinion that it was "dumb". His fans include the war criminals Tony Blair, who has "hailed" his appointments, and Henry Kissin ger, who describes the appointment of Hillary Clinton as "outstanding". One of John McCain's principal advisers, Max Boot, who is on the Republican Party's far right, said: "I am "gobsmacked by these appointments. [They] could just as easily have come from a President McCain."

Obama's victory is historic, not only because he will be the first black president, but because he tapped in to a great popular movement among America's minorities and the young outside the Democratic Party. In 2006 Latinos, the country's largest minority, took America by surprise when they poured into the cities to pro test against George W Bush's draconian immigration laws. They chanted: "Si, se puede!" ("Yes we can!"), a slogan Obama later claimed as his own. His secretary for homeland security is Janet Napolitano who, as governor of Arizona, made her name by stoking hostility against Latino immigrants. She has militarised her state's border with Mexico and supported the building of a hideous wall, similar to the one dividing occupied Palestine.

On election eve, reported Gallup, most Obama supporters were “engaged” but “deeply pessimistic about the country’s future direction”. My guess is that many people knew what was coming, but hoped for the best. In exploiting this hope, Obama has all but neutered the anti-war movement that is historically allied to the Democrats. After all, who can argue with the symbol of the first black president in this country of slavery, regardless of whether he is a warmonger?

As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, Obama is a "brand" like none other, having won the highest advertising campaign accolade and attracted unprecedented sums of money. The brand will sell for a while. He will close Guantanamo Bay, whose inmates represent less than 1 per cent of America's 27,000 "ghost prisoners". He will continue to make stirring, platitudinous speeches, but the tears will dry as people understand that President Obama is the latest manager of an ideological machine that transcends electoral power. Asked what his supporters would do when reality intruded, Stephen Walt, an Obama adviser, said: "They have nowhere else to go."

Not yet. If there is a happy ending to the Groundhog Day of repeated wars and plunder, it may well be found in the very mass movement whose enthusiasts registered voters and knocked on doors and brought Obama to power. Will they now be satisfied as spectators to the cynicism of "continuity"? In less than three months, millions of angry Americans have been politicised by the spectacle of billions of dollars of handouts to Wall Street as they struggle to save their jobs and homes. It as if seeds have begun to sprout beneath the political snow. And history, like Groundhog Day, can repeat itself.

Few predicted the epoch-making events of the 1960s and the speed with which they happened. As a beneficiary of that time, Obama should know that when the blinkers are removed, anything is possible.

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The power of speech

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South Africa’s anti-corruption march hit by government dirty tricks

On Wednesday the South African public will take to the streets, in spite of efforts to silence anti-corruption activists.

Anti-corruption campaigners in South Africa are complaining that plans to hold giant marches across the country this Wednesday have been hit by government dirty-tricks. “It’s the first time I can remember the government trying to suppress a public demonstration since the end of apartheid,” Dave Lewis, executive director of Corruption Watch, told the New Statesman. “You would have thought they would have learnt lessons from the 1980s – it’s futile to ban expressions of public opinion.”

Coming from someone like Lewis, a trade unionist who served the non-racial union movement from the 1970s until after the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994, these are serious allegations.

Plans for the demonstrations have been under way for months. Careful lobbying has brought a huge range of organisations on board, from churches to the South African chapter of the writer’s guild PEN international.

More than 650 people in the arts have pledged their support, from comedian Pieter-Dirk Uys to authors like Zakes Mda and Margie Orford, the PEN SA President. “Corruption is, in my view, a poison that affects a whole society eventually,” explained Orford.

The aim – say the organisers – is to mobilise 100 000 people to march to the Union Building in Pretoria and Parliament in Cape Town to protest against the country’s rampant corruption. The campaign group, Unite Against Corruption, says that a staggering £33bn has been misappropriated in one form or another since the end of white rule.

But months of planning received a setback when an official body granted workers official protection from dismissal on Friday for 8 October, well after the planned protest. As a result many ordinary union members will not join the march for fear of losing their jobs.

Lewis believes the ANC government and its allies in the communist party were behind the decision. “They should learn that you can’t bottle up this kind of frustration,” he said.

Entrenching corruption

The apartheid authorities were notoriously corrupt, diverting public funds to everything from bribes for oil and arms shipments to paying money into the personal Swiss bank accounts of the political elite. But since the ANC came to power corruption, far from being stamped out, has become even more entrenched.

President Jacob Zuma still has more than 700 allegations of corruption hanging over his head, which have never come to court. Attempts to bring corrupt officials to justice have been met with the removal of key officials. Lieutenant-General Anwa Dramat, the head of the Hawks, which targets organised crime and economic crime, was sacked in 2014. In his letter to the Minister of Police, Dramat said complained that he was pushed out because he was trying to fight the scourge of corruption which – in his words – has reached “epic proportions”.

Others have paid much higher prices.

In March this year an NGO – the Open Democracy Advice Centre – published the accounts of the persecution of ten whistleblowers. Some have been killed.

Xola Banisi, a member of the South African Municipal Workers Union, uncovered tender irregularities in the procurement department of the parastatal BloemWater. He took these to the police and was shot three times outside his girlfriend’s house in Bloemfontein’s Hillside Township shortly after handing in the dossier. No one has been arrested for his murder.

His brother, Bernard, is convinced this was an assassination – Xola had received several death threats before being killed. But Xola’s uncle was a veteran of the struggle, who had spent 15 years on Robben Island with Mandela, and he refused to be intimidated.

Anger at the unwillingness or inability of the authorities to halt the corrosive effects of corruption has undermined trust in the ANC and in the system of government in general. On Wednesday the South African public will take to the streets. The question is just how many will back the call of the many movements that have supported this protest.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?