Alright, I’m off the crazy train like Baleka Mbete on a bus in Soweto. Doesn’t make much sense except I did somehow end up following the deputy president as she rode a double-decker bus through primarily big shopping malls in the historic township. Here’s a video piece I produced today about the bus tour.

To complete this round-up of recent work, I have a an article and video about my time spent with the three main political parties here as volunteers went door-to-door campaigning in Johannesburg area townships. Below are full-size versions of the pictures that I took now up on The Times website.





This may be a little late, given the non-stop presidential campaign post-mortems of the last week, but I was told to keep quiet about the campaign until my time on staff at the Obama office in South Philly was formally up last Friday. One of the primary narratives that surrounded the campaign generally and particularly when it came to South Philly, where I’ve lived since the middle of September, was how the white working class/middle class (terms too often conflated without considering their significantly divergent meanings) vote was turning on race.

The New York Times political reporter Katharine Q. Seelye went after this story big time just two days before the election took place. It appears as though she went around the exact same neighborhoods in wards 26 and 39 where I canvassed and coordinated other volunteer canvassers in the weeks leading up to the election. In fact, I was canvassing out of Marconi Plaza at Broad and Oregon exactly one week before Seelye spoke to

Harry Klemash, 67, a Democrat who supported Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in the primary but is still not comfortable with Senator Barack Obama. “Obama has too many socialist policies, and he doesn’t have enough experience,” Mr. Klemash, a retired pressman, said Sunday as he walked his miniature poodle in Marconi Park in South Philadelphia, a largely white, Catholic, ethnic neighborhood.

In this exact spot one week before I was approached by a man who bounded towards our Obama canvass table on a windy Sunday afternoon. He asked me what we were doing in the park and I asked him if he knew who he was supporting in the election (standard canvass script). He said he was undecided and so I asked him how he felt about the last eight years — my standard first line of attack. After going through everything that had gone wrong under the Bush presidency, we finally got to his skepticism about Obama. This ran the gamut of Jeremiah Wright’s Jeremiads (thanks Prof. Kendall Johnson), to worries that Al Sharpton, Jessie Jackson and Louis Farrakhan would all be in power in an Obama administration. After we worked through the unlikelihood of that happening — hadn’t Jackson threatened to cut off Obama’s balls? — it was clear this guy was hurting at the bank. Suddenly he was saying, “We need a change.” It was only a matter of time before another volunteer had already signed him up for some Get Out The Vote weekend volunteer shifts (I wonder if he ever showed up).

But what about Seelye’s portrait of the exact same neighborhood? It’s not that it was innacurate, after all the one ward in the city to vote for McCain was ward 26, which includes Marconi Plaza’s western border. Still, it simplified a richer portrait, one that lends credence to what Ezra Klein suggested may have been a Pennsylvania fake out by the Obama campaign. Sure, I heard old Italian guys tell me that we should “keep the White House white” and had other McCain supporters scream at me that Obama was a Muslim. More often I heard people say, “I just want whoever is going to help me,” and then proceed to tell me that they can’t find work or that they aren’t getting enough hours at the job that they have. As the last month of the campaign went on, I heard less skepticism about Obama’s experience, associations, or his race. It was either “I’m hurting too bad to worry about that stuff” — one guy even answered his door, “Yeah, I’m voting for the colored guy” — or skepticism about Sarah Palin, McCain’s age or his help-the-rich-forget-everybody-else policies.

So no, I wasn’t surprised that South Philly was where McCain’s faint dreams came to die. My anecdotal experience seemed to tell the story. You can use Sarah Palin to whip a few rural southerners into a racist frenzy, shredding any last shred of dignity you had before this campaign, but white South Philadelphians weren’t going to buy your appeal to the dregs of racial populism. It wasn’t surprising to me to read of similar things going on in the northeast part of the city, which has similar demographics and was also considered potentially ripe territory for the McCain campaign. At the end of the day, “the colored guy” cared about the average South Philly pocket book and “the war hero” couldn’t care less about putting “country first.” I doubt last Tuesday’s spontaneous celebrations extended too far down Broad Street into Marconi Plaza, but I imagine many down there were pleased to have a fighting chance in Obama’s America.


To temper a little of the unbridled euphoria (of which I’ve been plenty guilty), one phone call I made to a black mother a little further north of Marconi Plaza, but still in South Philly should remind everyone to keep their eyes on the prize. For all the articles written about South Philly in this campaign, few recognized the extent to which segregation still defines the region of the city. South Philly is not all white and, in fact, two wards — 30 and 36 — have significant, struggling black populations that helped win this state and this election for Obama. I called a mother in ward 36 and asked her if she would be supporting Obama. She answered, “Yeah, but he doesn’t ever talk about us. He always talks about the middle class, but I’m not the middle class. I’m the working poor.” All I could say is, “you’re right.” And the ranks of the working poor will continue to rise with the way the economy is headed — wages go down, full time work becomes even more rare, inflation rises.

We can hope that Obama’s experience as a community organizer in Chicago might lend a little meat to the new Office of Urban Policy, but the fact is this campaign held on to the myth of the middle class in this county more than ever before. Even though basically everyone identifies as middle class, this one woman’s plea for Marxist sanity broke through all the myth-making and reminded me that Obama represents a lot of great things and that he could also accomplish great things, but many Americans continue to struggle after the excitement of his victory dies down.