To intelligence and beyond!
23 March 2018 15:09 (South Africa)
South Africa

South Africa at the intersection of Obama and Mandela’s paths

  • 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. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. 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.

  • South Africa
brooks on madiba and obama.jpg

For many people, maybe even for the traveller himself, President Barack Obama’s upcoming trip to Africa has effectively become the story of two different men and their respective journeys – and the way these separate roads both intersect as well as set out the trajectories of their own individual stories. But, one tale is now reaching its final chapter; the other man’s still has many pages to be filled in. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

In Pretoria, an increasingly frail Nelson Mandela is in a hospital bed and in critical condition, his active political life now concluded as his large family troops in to pay respects and ordinary people and world leaders alike continue to send their hopes for his recovery – even as the world’s media gathers to be on hand to report the inevitable.

The discussion has begun to shift, now, to his legacy for South Africa – and the world.

Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, could write in the Sunday Independent, “Madiba’s latest spell in hospital has had us once again dancing around the subject, though I was glad to see that alongside our heartfelt prayers for his recovery, there is also growing acceptance that he cannot go on for ever, and calls that we must learn to let him go… If we admit to our own mortality, we are more able to appreciate the seasons of our own lives, and our own and others’ intrinsic dignity, whatever our age or circumstances… Now the time is drawing close when we must do the same for Madiba. Let us not be afraid to use the ancient words of the Night Prayer: ‘May God grant him a peaceful night, and a good end’.”

Meanwhile, even as this story continues from a Pretoria hospital, Barack Obama is about ready to begin his most extensive visit to Africa while president – stopping in Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania. Yes, he visited Africa several times before becoming president and he made quick visits to both Egypt and Ghana, but there has been nothing close to Obama’s extensive visits to various European and Asian nations until now.

Finally, on 21 June, the White House offered its first substantive discussion about the importance and scheduling of this imminent visit to South Africa. (And up until Sunday 23 June, the South African government had yet to carry out a significant public discussion about its own hopes and goals for this visit.) As a result, what has passed for a public conversation in South Africa over the Obama visit has mostly been unseemly squabbles about whether Barack Obama was some kind of “war criminal” or if, instead, he should be hailed as a hero by receiving Cape Town’s Freedom of the City, being given an address to parliament or be awarded an honorary degree from the University of Johannesburg.

Moreover, within the US itself, the themes of the trip have been largely submerged by questions of cost. There were reports in the American press about the seemingly astonishing cost of conveying a president, his staff, his family, his aides, the security teams, communications support, vehicles and emergency medical support personnel, equipment and vehicles to three countries on the African continent. And there were reports that questions of cost led to the cancellation of a safari break during the Tanzania segment of the trip.


Jennifer Cooke and Richard Downie of the Washington-based think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, have recently argued: “President Obama’s forthcoming trip to Africa offers an opportunity to reenergise US engagement on a continent where economic opportunities are rising, tough security challenges endure and relative US influence is waning… His objective will be to signal to African governments and citizens that the United States remains an important and interested international partner, prepared to engage in ways that are relevant to the continent’s changing economic and demographic landscape. To be fully successful, he will need to overcome a general perception that the United States has withdrawn from Africa and at the same time convince an American public and private sector that there are upside opportunities in Africa that ultimately will serve both US and African interests.”

This may be a big task for a weeklong trip, after years of relative neglect – given the fact that so many other issues claimed Obama’s time and attention during the first five years of his presidency.

And the new edition of The Economist, putting this challenge in a historical context, said: “Mr Obama’s election in 2008 was celebrated across the continent. The Nigerian foreign minister wept, Kenya declared a national holiday and Nelson Mandela said Mr Obama proved Africans should ‘dare to dream’. Soon after his inauguration, he repaid the compliment by showering the continent with public affection. ‘I have the blood of Africa within me,’ he declared on a 20-hour stopover in Ghana in 2009, raising hopes he would be Africa’s global champion. But he has not visited since. Some Africans resent his long absence, suggesting he neglected them.”

Nevertheless, The Economist insisted that, actually, “Relations between America and much of Africa have deepened, regardless of Mr Obama’s travel schedule. The Pentagon, fretful about a growing list of African terrorist groups, is much more present…”

But all of this is not the same as increasing the country’s economic and trade presence.

Still, in Johannesburg, The Mail & Guardian stressed in an editorial: “With little more than a week until United States President Barack Obama arrives in South Africa, the build-up is strangely muted. For all his domestic woes over electronic surveillance, his international ones over his ambivalent Syria policy, the fraught withdrawal from Afghanistan and his complicated reframing of the way terrorism is fought, he remains the most important visitor to this country in a decade (Xi Jinping notwithstanding). And for all that the balance of global power is shifting east, the relationship with the US is critical to our economic, security and diplomatic interests. We are hearing very little from our own government about the agenda for the visit and the White House, while giving bland encomiums about democracy to the US media, is doing nothing to prepare the ground in a South Africa that is no longer in thrall of Obama’s star power. What might a more serious reconsideration of the relationship entail for a South Africa that needs to look east, west and toward Addis Ababa in framing a policy of both values and interests.”

As a result, in the absence of much noise from senior South African officials – at least as of Sunday evening – The Mail & Guardian offered its own South African agenda, saying, “Certainly, we want some simple things. Ongoing inclusion in African Growth and Opportunity Act trade preferences, rather than ‘migration’ out on the grounds of relative wealth and sophistication, for example. With South African hostages in the hands of al-Qaeda associates in Mali and Yemen, and the death of three Denel contractors at the hands of al-Shabab in Mogadishu this week, there can be no denying that our security interests are entwined with those of the US. This will play out on the continent in complicated ways, from Nigeria and the Sahel to Uganda and the Horn. What role South Africa and regional bodies play vis-à-vis the United Nations and US forces needs to be much better articulated. And that process is intimately linked to the broader discussion of reform in institutions of global governance such as the UN, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.”

The paper added, “Climate change, which Obama hopes to deal with at home later this year, should also be high on the agenda. We hope, too, that President Jacob Zuma will ask Obama, as Angela Merkel did, to what extent ordinary South Africans are caught up in US electronic spying. Of course, we need to offer something in return. The Zuma administration is already doing a better job on Zimbabwe. A more predictable set of positions – albeit nonaligned ones – in global bodies and bilateral engagements would help too. Nuclear nonproliferation – a priority for Obama and an area where South Africa once had a strong record – is an obvious case in point.

“Finally, shoring up South Africa’s credibility as a representative of the continent would help to reinforce the need for real engagement. It is a relationship seriously tested by differences on Côte d’Ivoire and Libya. Both sides need to be smart enough to work together despite basic weaknesses of trust.”

Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes briefed the media less than a week before Air Force One was due to have wheels up, saying, “we see Africa as one of the most important emerging regions in the world, and a place for the US to significantly increase our engagement in the years to come. There are growing economic opportunities there for increased trade and investment and increased engagement by US businesses.”

Rhodes went on to say the administration has encountered “a high demand signal from the US private sector for us to play an active role in deepening our trade and investment partnerships in Africa. And I think one of the things you’ll see on this trip is we’ll be incorporating events that bring in the private sector in each of the countries that we’re visiting. And we’ll also be bringing a number of members of the President’s economic team from our new USTR, Mike Froman, to representatives from OPIC, from the Export-Import Bank, and including Raj Shah, our AID Director, who also plays a role in these issues. So trade and investment and the economic opportunities on the continent are going to be an important part of the agenda; also democracy and democratic institution building…”

Moreover, Rhodes added, “I think you will also see a focus on young people. Africa has an extraordinarily large youth population, and it’s important for the United States to signal our commitment to investing in the future of African youth. And this, too, is a part of unleashing development on the continent because if you have young people who are able to access opportunity and able to shape the direction of their countries, that’s going to be in the interest of Africa and the United States as well. And you’ll also see the President speaking to the key pillars of our development agenda, which has focused on economic growth and also on issues such as food security and global health, where we’ve really shifted to a focus on capacity-building on the continent.”

Local American Embassy officials were queried about whether Barack Obama would also focus on regional security issues in South Africa in addition to such conversations during his other two stops. Embassy officials noted that because the head of the AU Commission, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, will take part in Obama’s discussions in South Africa, it is easy to imagine international security will be one of topics on the Obama agenda in South Africa.

As far as the US-South African relationship in the health area, most particularly with HIV/Aids, American foreign assistance to South Africa has increasingly been focused on dealing with that disease via PEPFAR – the President’s Emergency Program for Aids Relief – programme. However, this programme is scheduled to decrease from around $512-million a year to less than half that amount by 2017. The official said this is really because of the transfer of patient care and feeding away from the US side of the ledger and on to South Africa’s. As a result, this represents a continuing commitment of US resources for dealing with the disease, well into the future. Accordingly, one should expect progress on Aids will almost surely be an important topic of conversations during Obama’s visit to South Africa.

Of course, there is that intersection of Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama’s personal trajectories – both now and in the past. Rhodes explained, “while we’re in South Africa, [we] are going to be very deferential to the Mandela family in terms of any interaction that the President may have with the Mandela family or with Nelson Mandela… The President wants to support them in any way. He’s supporting them with his thoughts and prayers as it is. And if he has an opportunity to see the family in some capacity, that’s certainly something that we may do. And he’ll be going to Robben Island as well, which I think will be an important and powerful symbol at this time when the world has Nelson Mandela in their prayers.

“I would just add that the President has always seen Nelson Mandela as one of his personal heroes. And he was honoured – well, first of all, his first political activism, when he was in college, was driven by the Anti-Apartheid Movement and the inspiration of Nelson Mandela. And carrying that forward, he was honoured to meet him in Washington in 2005.

“He was very moved that Nelson Mandela called him after the 2008 election and spoke to him several times in the years that followed. So this is something that the President watches very closely. And we are definitely going to be paying tribute to Nelson Mandela’s contribution to not just South Africa, but to Africa and the world during our stop in South Africa. The President will speak to it, I’m sure, in his speeches.”

Rhodes then went through the full schedule, beginning with a bilateral meeting the Senegal’s president, a meeting with African judicial leaders from around the continent and – naturally – a visit to Goree Island, one of the key slave ports that dispatched captives on into a life of unremitting servitude.

There will also be meetings with civil society leaders at the Goree Institute as well as a focus on the question of African food security. As Rhodes said, “Food security has been one of our key development priorities, in which we’ve brought together the international community as well as the private sector behind approaches that strengthen African capacity in developing agricultural sectors that better feed the populations and also allow products to get to market.”

Then it will be on to South Africa. Obama will have the inevitable bilateral meeting with President Jacob Zuma that will include discussions about “efforts to deal with the situation in Sudan and South Sudan to some of the security challenges in Central Africa, and of course, to the promotion of democracy on the continent.”

Thereafter, Obama will head over to UJ’s education campus in Soweto for one of those patented town hall meetings he seems to delight in doing around the world. Rhodes pointed to this as a part of Obama’s “Young African Leaders Initiative… that the President launched this initiative when he hosted African leaders from across the continent at his town hall meeting at the White House, with the idea being that we need to reach the next generation of African leaders in civil society, in entrepreneurship, in journalism.”

This time around, Obama will speak with “young African leaders about the US investment in deepening ties with young people not just in South Africa, but across the continent.”

Then Obama meets with the AU’s Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, focusing “on strengthening mutual organisations across Africa, with the African Union, of course, being the most prominent one on the continent.”

While the president is doing his meetings, Michelle Obama will have tea with one of Jacob Zuma’s wives – in this case, Thobeka Madiba-Zuma – and be involved in a “discussion with youth” at the Sci Bono Discovery Centre with “teenagers from across South Africa, as well as students who will be able to join virtually from cities across the United States via Google+ Hangout, including in Los Angeles, California, Kansas City, Missouri, New York City, and Houston, Texas and via MTV Base.”

The next day, the Obama family goes to Robben Island to “pay tribute to the extraordinary sacrifices made by Nelson Mandela in his pursuit of freedom for the people of South Africa as well as so many other figures in the anti-apartheid movement.” There’s that intersection of the two trajectories again – just in case anybody forgot it. Then it’s a visit to a community health centre in the company of retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu to “to hear first-hand about the important efforts that are being made by the Archbishop, but also by people across South Africa that come up with community-oriented solutions to health care challenges, but also to discuss our own global health agenda…”

After that, Obama goes to the University of Cape Town to speak about America’s “Africa policy, focusing on these different areas of trade and investment, development, democracy, partnerships on behalf of peace and security.” Explicitly driving home those connections to those who have come before, Rhodes said UCT “is an historic site – one of the great universities on the continent; a place that has been host to very significant speeches, including the speeches Robert F. Kennedy gave – the Day of Affirmation address where he spoke about ‘ripples of hope’.” At UCT, Obama will “lay out a vision for US-African relations going forward.”

Thereafter, it is on to Tanzania for more of the same, but with the addition of a roundtable with business people and a speech to a gathering of CEOs from the US and Africa where Obama will speak to what the US can do in the future “to increase trade and investment from the United States into Africa, what we can do to advance our trade relationships, dealing with AGOA and other opportunities that we have going forward, how do we improve the climate for economic growth in East Africa and Africa generally.”

But it does seem worth noting the US president will not be speaking directly to business leaders in South Africa rather than in Tanzania, despite the fact that country is the continent’s largest economy. From a geopolitical perspective, however, it may not be quite so surprising. Tanzania was, after all, where Xi Jinping, the new president of China, made a high profile visit.

Rhodes did add, however, that “members of the President's economic team – Valerie Jarrett, Mike Froman, Fred Hochberg, and Raj Shah – will be participating in an event with the private sector in Cape Town as well, independent of the President,” said Rhodes.


Would there be any major initiatives during Obama’s time in South Africa, an Embassy official tried to lower expectations. While being unable to point to likely new presidential initiatives or bilateral agreements to be signed during this upcoming trip, he pointed to the theme of food security and the Senegal portion of the visit as something to watch in that regard.

Finally, inevitably, there is the question of those juicy rumours about the cost of the trip. The embassy official told us, “we don't have estimates of the cost but it is worth it for US foreign policy with Africa.” Not surprisingly, he also declined to be drawn into a discussion of those headline-grabbing charges of US data-harvesting or the recently exposed British eavesdropping (and information sharing with the US) on some G20 delegations back in 2009.

The challenge, of course, as this writer could already observe nearly three years ago, is that “Obama’s team has now stated its framework on African democracy, international and food security and signed strategic partnership or dialogue agreements with Nigeria and South Africa. But, trying to balance security concerns, the need for new energy resources, an insistence on open, transparent governance, the nurture or creation of opportunity societies, creative responses to trans-national issues like HIV/Aids, and an effective response to the human rights challenges of regimes like Sudan or Zimbabwe (these latter two nations, both among the small number of African issues consistently raised by Barack Obama the senator, the candidate and the president) and growing concerns about food security on the continent would surely tax an American leader not simultaneously dealing with the continuing international and domestic financial crisis – as well as efforts to carry out fundamental reforms of the US’ health care system, respond to the growing challenges of an ascendant China and carry out military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq – not to mention the usual evergreens like the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

We went on to conclude, “Obama the foreign policy innovator is hedged in by major financial constraints. At best, his administration will find the resources to continue supporting bipartisan successes like PEPFAR or the Millennium Challenge Corporation and to fund and support modest new initiatives on open governance, education, trade expansion and food security. This author’s view as Barack Obama assumed the presidency – the best effect his administration could have on Africa is probably a successful effort to reignite economic growth to build strong demand for Africa’s primary commodities – still stands.” The problem is that, so far, at least, the plans for this trip seemingly sidestep that last point.”

Still, The Economist argued in this regard that appearances might be more difficult than the realities: “America’s weak spot in Africa is investment, a main point of the president’s trip. American firms have long operated on the continent but failed to keep up with China, Africa’s biggest trading partner, which buys and sells about $200-billion a year. American trade is half that, though still up fivefold in the past decade, much of it in oil imports from Angola and Nigeria. Mr Obama will lobby for more American participation in infrastructure projects.

“But American fears that China is taking over Africa are exaggerated. America and its Western allies are still more influential across the board, whereas Chinese knowledge and political engagement remain shallow. America has 51 embassies in Africa to China’s 41, of which many are largely limited to commerce. Still, China plainly wants to catch up; its new president, Xi Jinping, visited the continent on his first foreign trip this year. His predecessor went there five times during ten years in power and held Africa summits every three years…”

Nonetheless, The Economist concludes, “Asking Africa to choose between prosperity and democracy is not only a false choice but also an unattractive one. The more America trades with Africa, the more political influence it is likely to gain. That, it seems, is also the view of Mr Obama.”

And the CSIS’ Cooke and Downie predicted, “But the major departure in the upcoming visit will be the emphasis on bolstering US-Africa economic and commercial engagement. This makes sense for a number of reasons. US foreign assistance levels – a lthough a small fraction of the overall budget – will come under continued pressure from a Congress preoccupied by US debt and government spending. Harnessing the capacities and resources of the US private sector can serve US commercial interests and also spur economic growth and development in Africa.

At the same time, it speaks to Africa’s changing economic landscape, where opportunities – and competition – for investment are expanding, and where traditional donor-recipient relations are giving way to more mature partnerships.”

In that regard, Cooke and Downie note that some 500 business figures will participate in Obama’s trip at various points along the way to assess the opportunities for themselves. Obama’s task, therefore, is to convince African governments and citizens of the comparative advantage of US private-sector investment in terms of quality, transparency, technology and knowledge transfer, training, and systems development.

Finally, Obama’s job is to marshal the capacities of US government agencies and private-sector partners to improve the investment climate in African states, including “technical assistance to strengthen government and institutional capacity and an expected announcement to partner on electricity generation and distribution, which has been a long-standing impediment to Africa’s economic and industrial growth.” This is a long laundry list of tasks and challenges for six days’ worth of travel through three African nations. And even if it is successful, there is still the shadow of Nelson Mandela’s silent hospital stay to draw attention away from Barack Obama’s exertions. DM

Read more:

  • “The United States and Africa in the Obama Era: New wine in old bottles, old bottles for a new beverage – Or a new label on an old brew?” via the African Portal website (directing readers to archived studies carried out by the Centre for Policy Studies in South Africa)
  • Barack Obama in Africa – Late but not empty-handed – America’s president visits the continent of his father after four years away at The Economist
  • President Obama’s Africa Trip: Making the Business Case, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies website
  • Barack Obama in Africa Late but not empty-handed America’s president visits the continent of his father after four years away at The Economist
  • Obama to seek return on his personal investment in Africa for US economic interests at the Washington Post
  • Obama Africa trip at the Washington Post
  • Death: it’s time to break the taboo at the Sunday Independent (a column by Cape Town Archbishop Thabo Makgoba)
  • Obama’s attitude towards Africa splits opinions at the Mail & Guardian

Photos of Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama by Reuters.

  • 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. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. 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.

  • South Africa

Get overnight news and latest Daily Maverick articles

Reader notice: Our comments service provider, Civil Comments, has stopped operating and will terminate services on 20th Dec 2017. As a result, we will be searching for another platform for our readers. We aim to have this done with the launch of our new site in early 2018 and apologise for the inconvenience.