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27 April 2017 20:35 (South Africa)

Senator Obama in SA: 2006. President Obama in SA: ?

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • World
C:\fakepath\obama in sa 2006

Unexpected electric power cuts in his suburban Johannesburg neighbourhood on a peaceful weekend afternoon, gave J BROOKS SPECTOR the chance to contemplate a past and future visit to Africa by America’s recently re-elected chief executive, Barack Obama.

As you read this, President Barack Obama is in Southeast Asia on the first visit of his second term of office, even though that term starts officially on 20 January 2013. A few days before the trip to Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon said it reflected Obama’s “conviction that engagement is the best way to encourage Burmese authorities to further action. There’s a lot more to be done, and we are not going to miss this moment in terms of our opportunity to push this along and to try to lock in as much reform and lock in this path forward as best we can.”

But regardless of the effect of this visit - especially in advancing Obama’s pivot towards East Asia (and away from what has been determined to be a near-fruitless expenditure of national treasure in Iraq and Afghanistan), or as an exposition of his fundamental views on foreign relations – for many in Africa, one important, as-yet-unanswered question remains: when will Obama make his first sustained trip as president to the continent where his father was born?

Will Obama spend more time visiting Africa in the coming four years than he did during his first term of office? He could barely spend much less. 

Presidential second terms often are focused on foreign policy, and this upcoming term will clearly present numerous overlapping foreign policy challenges. Especially for Obama, the possible charge that he favours his father’s continent will essentially have evaporated, given all his other likely travels.

And now, of course, the White House has released its national strategy paper on Africa – a statement that puts primacy on trade and political reforms – rather than military alignments. This document says, for example, “Sustainable, inclusive economic growth is a key ingredient to security, political stability, and development, and it underpins efforts to alleviate poverty, creating the resources that will bolster opportunity and allow individuals to reach their full potential.”

But for most Africans at least, his visits to Accra and Cairo do not yet represent sufficient interest paid to the continent for a man of Obama’s background – and even more so to a continent that initially reposed so much trust in his ability to influence its future. 

The question came up yet again from audiences when this writer was in Cape Town to discuss Obama’s re-election victory and the likely foreign policy challenges of Obama’s second term of office.

As Daily Maverick readers know, Barack Obama explored his relationship with his largely absent father in his first book, Dreams from My Father. This volume included a chronicle of a then-young American’s visit to Kenya to pick up the threads of his family saga. Obama wrote the book in the mid-1990s when he was poised to launch his political career. Then, it was reissued in August 2004, two weeks after his highly successful 27 July keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. This revised edition included a new preface by the author, as well as the text of the keynote speech he had just delivered at the Democratic National Convention that had nominated Massachusetts Senator John Kerry for president.

Obama had told the convention in phrases that he has reprised during his political ascent, “…there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America — there's the United States of America. The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into red states and blue states; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too: We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States, and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq.”

Kerry, of course, was defeated by George W Bush in the latter’s campaign for re-election, but Obama’s exotic background, his uplifting speech – and his electrifying delivery – all helped thrust him into national recognition. That, in turn, helped propel him to the party’s presidential nomination just four years later.

Two years after that 2004 convention, Obama’s second book, The Audacity of Hope was released. In a way, it was a kind of pre-campaign campaign manifesto, laying out Obama’s weltanschauung, or worldview, on foreign and domestic issues. Just as this book was gaining wide public attention, Obama was also travelling increasingly widely internationally, now that he was a senator – to Iraq of course, but also to Kenya, the Chad (to see first-hand the condition of the Darfuri refugees), and South Africa.  Kenya, of course, was his father’s homeland, while South Africa was a nation where a large political evil had been banished and whose circumstances had had a seminal influence on Obama’s own political education.

At the time of his 2006 African visit, Time magazine columnist Simon Robinson wrote from Kenya, “The junior senator from Illinois, a man talked about as a future US President, is a celebrity in his father’s homeland. His visit has been front-page news for days, and at each stop crowds of hundreds, sometimes thousands, gather to cheer him, a stark contrast to South Africa, which he toured earlier in this trip and where most people have never heard the name Obama.” 

The recognition factor in South Africa has obviously changed since. On that low-key trip, among other activities, he met with then-Finance Minister Trevor Manuel, visited the Constitutional Court, saw community health projects in South African townships and spoke in Cape Town.

When this writer was introduced at a meeting of the South African Institute of International Affairs in Cape Town recently to speak on the Obama electoral victory, the session moderator, Martyn Trainor, inevitably noted the timeliness of any discussion of Obama’s electoral victory. But then he took several sheets of crisply folded paper from his jacket pocket, explaining that they were his own comprehensive notes of then-Senator Obama’s talk to another SAIIA gathering in Cape Town – on 21 August 2006.

At that talk, Obama described how his involvement in politics had evolved out of anti-Apartheid activism while he was still a university student. It was, he said, “the one issue that moved me for the first time in my life to become politically active and play a leadership role in my community. The issue was Apartheid. And as a young college student, I became deeply involved with the divestment movement in the United States. I remember meeting with a group of ANC leaders, hearing the stories of their struggles of freedom and their leader Nelson Mandela. I tell this story, from time to time in the United States, to remind audiences that America simply has not been as exporter of a democracy and freedom. We have also been inspired by the struggles in other nations that have, in turn, helped shape and perfect the very freedom and rights held dear by citizens of my own country.”

Obama went on to reprise the historical interplay of influences between Gandhi in South Africa and Martin Luther King in America, adding, “Coming full circle, the struggles of South African activists in the 1970s, 1980s, and into the 1990s sparked the political consciousness of my generation.” From that, it was a quick segue to contemporary transnational threats – such as HIV/Aids and nuclear proliferation, as well as narco-terrorism and terror groups more generally – all of which threaten everyone, but which hit Africa particularly hard.

Setting out themes he would reprise three years later in Accra (as the prelude for declaring the era of the big man in Africa to be over), Obama said such problems “thrive where corruption is rife and the majority of the population is impoverished and uneducated. And they can tear apart the social, economic, and political fabric of a region in a matter of days.”

While threats to the globe’s stability can still arise from the actions of a nation like North Korea, Obama added, “the free travel of people and goods across borders – the life-blood of the global economy – has created the ideal environment for the kind of threats that can race across borders and consume the entire planet… more than ever, we must care about each other’s problems – not just when there’s a missile pointed at us or a dictator on the march… And so I think it’s time that in my country and all countries, we begin to promote a fuller freedom, a more empowering democracy than many around the world have come to expect from us in recent years.”

Obama argued that success in such efforts would “reduce the risk of conditions that serve as incubators for common threats, that transcend national borders” through impoverishment, through the involvement of others like war criminals and terrorists and through building the capacity of other nations who can be partners in confronting common threats.

The senator chose to highlight the development successes of countries like Ghana and Thailand in their movements away from repressive regimes; even as he argued the US needed to adopt more comprehensive approaches towards supporting such efforts. Obama also chose to identify the important role of civil society in achieving social and economic growth, as well as the need for nations like South Africa to adopt tough, internal reforms to stay competitive in the new globalized environment (a theme that would also be recalled in his speech in Ghana).

In summing up, Obama added that whenever he felt the need to confront his pessimism about the ability of people to move beyond history, he was comforted by the examples of Africans breaking free of European colonialism, Europeans liberated from Nazi tyranny, Polish workers confronting their oppressive regime through their unions, Gandhi’s strength of purpose and African Americans moving for the expansion of civil rights.  

Obama wound up his remarks by saying that if someone had told the members of his father’s generation in Kenya that “just forty years later, a black man of African descent – inspired to enter public life, in part by African leaders – would return to his ancestors’ homeland as a United States senator, and would speak to a crowd of black and white South Africans who shared the same freedoms and the same rights, they may never have believed it. And then I thought, things do change. And history does move forward.

“Martin Luther King, Jr once said ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’ He’s right but it doesn’t bend that way on its own. It bends towards justice because throughout history, millions of ordinary people have found extraordinary courage to bend it.” 

Obama concluded, “And that today, it is up to us – sharing the same moment of life and seeking that same happiness – to take our own two hands and bend that arc to a new and better tomorrow.”

Regardless of whether a second-term trip to Africa for Obama is anchored on going to Kenya to celebrate that country’s successful 2013 election, or to participate a year later in South Africa’s celebrations to commemorate two decades of non-racial democracy – or yet some other auspicious event; the hope must surely be that the trip is to applaud progress that is in line with Obama’s own hopes from years gone by for the continent – rather than being a moment to deplore the depredations of yet another Darfur. DM

Read more: 

Photo: Constitutional Court Justice Albie Sachs is leading Barack Obama on a tour of the court in 2006. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Mission in South Africa.

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • World

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