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19 March 2018 09:19 (South Africa)

Obama's SA adventure: Channeling Madiba, calling for a better future

  • 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.

  • World
Obama MAIN photo.jpg

U.S. president Barack Obama gave his keynote address in Cape Town on Sunday, after having spoken with members of the Mandela family and having visited Robben Island with his family on what he called a “deeply humbling” tour. He has emphasised the need to develop a more equal relationship between Africa and the U.S. – although not before the U.S. doubles the access to electricity in Sub-Saharan Africa. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

During US President Barack Obama’s first full day in South Africa as part of three-country trip in Africa to Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania, he had a very busy day. In the morning he met with President Jacob Zuma; joined with Mandela family members to offer personal solace in the midst of their public ordeal over Nelson Mandela’s medical condition; spoke with Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the chair of the AU Commission about regional security issues; participated in a youth forum organised at the University of Johannesburg’s Soweto Campus (including participants from Uganda, Kenya and Nigeria via satellite links); and attended the official dinner hosted by Jacob Zuma in his honour.

His second day in South Africa was packed just like the first day. He and his family visited Robben Island with struggle stalwart Ahmed Kathrada serving as their personal escort and guide; and then toured a community health care facility partially funded by the US Government. Then at the end of a busy day, at the University of Cape Town, he delivered what the White House kept calling the “framing speech” for his entire African trip.

Nonetheless, despite two new initiatives designed to begin construction of Obama’s African legacy: the Washington Youth Fellowships initiative and a much larger $7 billion, six-nation energy generation plan to light up the Dark Continent (forgive us that one); the shadow of a single 94 year-old man permeated the entire trip. In fact, Nelson Mandela, now being treated for pneumonia in a Pretoria hospital, may well be the most important presence of Obama’s trip. Of course, Barack Obama, himself, has done much to summon that very presence of the absent Mandela – linking himself to Mandela’s career and ideals throughout this trip.

As the working part of this trip began, Obama met with Jacob Zuma for the standard bilateral discussion on the issues. At the press conference that followed the heads of state meeting, Zuma had told Obama how much South Africa looks forward to more cooperation with the US as his nation pushes for “reinvestment in the era of freedom and democracy.” Sounding rather like the eager executive of an investment bank, Zuma extolled Africa – and particularly South Africa – as the right place for foreign direct investment and he praised the 600 US companies operating in South Africa and their creation of more than 150,000 jobs; and then he publicly urged the US Government to extend the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), the American law that allows tariff-free export to America of thousands of African products - but which expires in 2015. Zuma said, “We have placed on the table bankable projects, which range from infrastructure development to skills development for the youth, and also across a number of sectors, like information and communication technologies, agriculture, and the green economy. We have urged that underpinning these investments should be the drive for regional integration, industrialisation, and localisation of supply and manufacture.”

Beyond trade issues, Zuma extolled the two nations’ “common commitment to strengthening democratic governance and advancing the protection of human rights on the continent”, cooperation on peace-building and post-conflict reconstruction cooperation, although he argued South Africa remains concerned “about the mushrooming of rebel movements in some countries in the continent. There are times when the AU is promoting adherence to its policy of zero tolerance for people who come to office through unconstitutional means. This is a threat to our hard-won peace in many countries in the continent.”

Praising the US relaxation of sanctions against Zimbabwe, Zuma called on the US to do more, adding “that the African Union, with the support of the international community, will find [African] solutions to the challenges we face in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, Niger, and Central African Republic and Somalia.” Zuma took the obligatory swipe at US policies, arguing the Sahel’s problems stem from the way the UN Security Council dealt with the civil war in Libya, although he did offer modest praise for renewed efforts on Middle East peace.

In his response, Obama said, “The United States views South Africa as a critical partner… Africa is on the rise and South Africa is always at the forefront of trends in Africa. I see South Africa as critical to one of my top priorities on this trip - and that is to promote trade and investment that helps unleash economic growth here in Africa, and ultimately will benefit the United States of America.”

He added, “We export more products to South Africa than any other nation in sub-Saharan Africa. Hundreds of companies, as you noted, operate here in South Africa. South African companies are investing back in the United States - like Sasol, with plans for billions of dollars in investment in U.S. energy and manufacturing, including my home state of Illinois. And as the largest economy in the region, growth here can drive growth all across Africa. So I want our countries to be doing more business together…. [S]ix of the ten largest economies in the world - or six of the ten fastest-growing economies in the world are in Africa… Today, almost all of South Africa’s exports to the United States - 98 percent - already enter our markets duty-free… I want to renew but also improve and update the African Growth and Opportunity Act so we’re generating more trade and more jobs,” he said, although he added that US firms need to see that “level playing field when they invest or are trying to export into South Africa….”

Obama praised the bilateral cooperation on HIV/AIDS as an example of how this is a partnership of equals working together to solve common challenges. He also made a point of linking ideas of progress to progress for women and young people. When he spoke about Zimbabwe, he added they had “agreed that the harassment of citisens and groups needs to stop, and reforms need to move forward so the people of Zimbabwe can cast their votes in elections that are fair, and free, and credible” and he also spoke on greater cooperation on peacekeeping in the Congo. On global issues, Obama added that while the two governments don’t agree on everything, “we’ve seen the progress that we can make together - on nuclear security, on climate change.”

When Obama was asked what were the real purposes of the trip and what he thought of US “competition” with China, Obama answered, “I think it’s good for the United States, regardless of what others do. I actually welcome the attention that Africa is receiving from countries like China and Brazil, and India, and Turkey - because, number one, the more interest they show in Africa, the more tools we have and mechanisms we have to further incorporate Africa into the global economy, which has the potential of creating jobs and businesses and opportunity.” Setting out positions he would reiterate during his time in South Africa, Obama said, “It’s important for Africans to make sure that these interactions are good for Africa, because - let me just take the example of natural resources. I think there’s been a long history of extracting resources from Africa; you take raw materials, you send them to someplace else where they get used, processed, sometimes sold back to Africa. The profits stay there, the jobs stay there, and not much stays in Africa. There’s a long history of that.”

And, by the way, no, oil’s not the reason US is here, either. Instead, the US interest is to promote energy availability in Africa to generate jobs so that Africans have better incomes and thus can buy American goods and services. And he added his concern as to whether some countries (go ahead, guess who) are really offering a good deal for Africans via their trade and other activities on the continent, saying, “If somebody says that they want to help you develop your natural resources, how much of the money is staying in Africa? If they say that they’re very interested in a certain industry, is the manufacturing and value added done in Africa? Are they tolerating corruption that’s not benefiting the people but just benefiting a few at the top in their interactions with African countries?”

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama stands in the Robben Island prison cell that Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years of imprisonment, near Capetown June 30, 2013. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

After the morning in Pretoria, Barack and Michelle Obama spoke with Graca Machel by phone. Mandela’s wife said she had drawn “strength from the support received from the Obama family.” In return, Obama expressed his “hope that Madiba draws peace and comfort from the time that he is spending with loved ones, and also expressed my heartfelt support for the entire family as they work through this difficult time. I also reaffirmed the profound impact that his legacy has had in building a free South Africa, and in inspiring people around the world - including me. That's a legacy that we must all honour in our own lives, including this July on Mandela Day.”

Adding to this symbolic embrace of the Mandela legacy magic, the Obamas met with members of the Mandela “clan” at the Nelson Mandela Centre for Memory in Johannesburg, thereby sidestepping the more awkward, fraught symbolism of any kind of photo-opp with a frail, bed-ridden Mandela. As a result, instead of such a visit, at every stop along the way, Obama drew rhetorically from Mandela’s personal struggles, principles and ideals as lead-in testimony for his own themes.

Then on Saturday afternoon, Barack Obama was in the University of Johannesburg’s education faculty auditorium in Soweto with over six hundred young movers and shakers assembled from throughout the country, along with some more senior figures like Patrice Motsepe – and with satellite connections to groups in Uganda, Kenya and Nigeria. While the Soweto audience waited for Obama to come on stage, they spontaneously sang “Shosholoza” (the old labourers’ song now embraced as a sporting event chant) as well as the anti-Apartheid struggle song, “Nelson Mandela, Nelson Mandela, ha hona ya tshwanang le wena” - “There's no one and never will be anyone compared to him.”

The singing seemed to underscore Obama’s own reprise of how Mandela’s struggles had inspired him and how this young audience should also be similarly inspired in their own futures. Obama then took questions from his cross-continental audiences. Many of these questions spoke directly to African development and trade issues – giving Obama a chance to punt AGOA, the need for investment, support for clean non-corrupt governments, the importance of trade over aid for the future, and the need for young Africans to grasp control of their national destinies and break out of the “dependency trap”. These answers were effectively a reprise of a theme he has been speaking about since he first addressed it in his book, The Audacity of Hope nearly a decade previously. Obama also made some shout-outs of a number of particularly impressive young African leaders – including Daily Maverick’s very own Khadija Patel.

A surprise element of the Obama presentation was the announcement of a new programme, building on previous youth leader encounters, the Washington African Leaders Fellowships. Obama said these would be designed to bring younger Africans to the US for a mix of university programs and internships with American businesses and NGOs to make tangible the Obama administration’s commitment to build its relationships with Africa’s successor generation. In a continent with perhaps half a billion people under the age of 30 by the year 2020, this is certainly an opportune and useful idea. The challenge, of course, is that in these straitened budgetary times, such a program may need some interesting budgetary legerdemain to pay for it.

What did not happen inside the hall – a spirited disagreement of the Obama administration’s policies in the Middle East, South Asia, Guantanamo, or the newest issue of cyber-snooping – only made their presence modestly felt a few kilometres away. Several hundred demonstrators eager to make their disagreements known on such themes had gathered to protest, although in the end they were dispersed by police using tear gas and the inevitable rubber bullets without affecting the Obama session.

The next morning, the president and his family then helicoptered over to Robben Island for an encounter with what is probably South Africa’s most evocative memory of its Apartheid past. The Obama family had a personalised guided tour from another former political prisoner who had been on the island with Mandela, Achmad Kathrada. They saw the limestone quarry where Mandela and so many other prisoners had laboured away, the exercise yard which was the site of so many political discussions in the so-called “Robben Island University”, and, of course, Nelson Mandela’s own cell during his years on the island prison.

One curiosity of this visit is that when Obama signed the visitor’s book, it turned out the president who had signed that guest book prior to Obama had been none other than Uhuru Kenyatta. Kenyan President Kenyatta, of course, is the man whose indictment by the International Criminal Court is the reason Obama did not to make Kenya one of the stops on this Africa sojourn.

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama writes in a guest book as he tours Robben Island with first lady Michelle Obama, near Cape Town, June 30, 2013. Under apartheid, Nelson Mandela spent several decades as a political prisoner on Robben Island. REUTERS/Jason Reed

The planned keystone of the trip was Obama’s speech at the University of Cape Town. Here he offered the now usual encomiums to Nelson Mandela’s political and spiritual legacy, but this time they were mixed with a reach back to the late Senator Robert Kennedy’s famous 1966 speech in the same hall at UCT. Kennedy had challenged South African students (then mostly white, of course) with the notion that even small efforts, those tiny ripples of hope, can ultimately lead to the sweeping away of the mightiest walls of repression.

Drawing again on his theme that the continent’s great potential future is in its vast, growing cohort of young people, Obama cautioned that the economic growth of the continent could, however, be imperilled by the endemic corruption of governments and societies or through disorder and violence. Instead, Obama argued that economic growth in Africa is in both Africa’s and America’s best interests. Strong, growing economies give American businesses markets and allow relationships to move beyond the paternalism of aid giving and receiving - moving to a partnership of equals.

For Obama, then, the three key words were opportunity, democracy and peace. But for Africans to access greater opportunity, America now needs to up its own game in bringing more trade missions and investment missions to the continent and in pushing vigorously for renewal of AGOA before it expires in 2015. Moreover, this requires the continent to have greater food security that will come from improving agricultural output, not simply the importation of food from beyond Africa – harking back to his proposals made on the first leg of the trip in Senegal.

In this speech, too, Obama rolled out the signature new initiative for the entire trip, his Power Africa plan that would help build the power generating resources to connect all of the continent’s citisens to 21st century, allow new businesses “to plug Africa into the global economy”, and get the two-thirds of the continent that does not yet have such access onto the grid. This initiative will partner government money with the private sector to develop new sources of energy, expand access to it and open up an expansion of clean energy. (And not surprisingly, expand opportunities for American exports and investments in such infrastructure expansion). It may be tougher, perhaps, to convince Republicans in the US Congress why they should support this plan.

Photo: Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the University of Cape Town, June 30, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed

Obama then circled back to one of his favourite themes of the trip - that it is the countries whose governments are not corrupt, and where governments serve the people rather than the other way round, that succeed. He argued, for example, that Zimbabwe finally has the chance to move forward, but only if it has a credible, free, fair and peaceful election. Then, universalising this ideal, Obama said such values “shouldn’t be just Americans who stand up for democracy; Africans should do so as well for their African institutions. You can be a voice for the human progress you have written into your own Constitution.”

But then, he uttered a few lines that could only be seen as a subtle rebuke to South Africa:

“So here in South Africa, your democratic story has inspired the world. And through the power of your example, and through your position in organisations like SADC and the African Union, you can be a voice for the human progress that you've written into your own Constitution. You shouldn't assume that that's unique to South Africa. People have aspirations like that everywhere.”

Notice the 'can' rather then 'are'. Almost 20 years after the advent of new South Africa, its voice for human progress should have been felt much more.

Beyond simply the rhetorical impact, Obama clearly had connected with many in his audience. Without question, when he is “on”, and beyond his current domestic political troubles or international difficulties, he remains one of this generation’s supremely appealing speakers - as he was during his UCT speech. Immediately after he had finished, for example, DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko tweeted “Such a great speech @BarackObama. Clean government, social delivery, women's empowerment, market-led growth, more young political leaders!” Others commented to Daily Maverick reporters how impressed they had been by his thoroughly unapologetic stance on corruption, which they agreed was a message both South Africa and its neighbours need to hear. For such people, Obama’s formulation that corruption was not simply morally undesirable, but that it was also particularly deleterious for the health of an economy was the kind of message that needs to be delivered. Just as he has said so frequently in the past, as in his Accra statement that the era of the big man in Africa is over; this time around, Obama referred specifically to Nelson Mandela’s refusal to cling to power as just the kind of example that needs to be emulated.

Following these two days of South African activities, the Obama cavalcade moves on to Tanzania for the final leg of this African journey. According to the White House, while the themes in Senegal and South Africa are democratisation and youth, this last segment is supposed to focus more closely still on economics, trade and investment promotion. A key feature of this stop is a session with African CEOs – together with American business leaders.

This meeting, presumably, will put more flesh on the outlines of how Americans plan to compete for market share in Africa, just as the continent is poised for a massive infrastructure build. In this, American business and government hope to compete, yes, we’ll use the word “compete”, more effectively with their Chinese counterparts; even as they seek to demonstrate that democratic values, openness and honest government are fully supportive of development and growth rather than being impediments to them.

However, a key to this Obama message of youth development, more aggressive trade and investment promotion, and new and expensive energy development programs for Africa will be in the hands of the American Congress. Obama’s toughest sell may well be to convince his Republican tormenters that spending this kind of money will be a sound investment in creating jobs and growth for the American economy as well - that it really can be a “win-win” moment. We shall see. DM

Read more:

  • Speeches and Remarks at the White House website
  • 5 things Obama wants young South Africans to know at CNN
  • Obama no enemy of ours, a column by Xolela Mangcu in City Press
  • With Mandela, end-of-life care dilemmas magnified at the AP
  • Visit by Obama Is Overshadowed by Mandela Vigil at the New York Times
  • WHITE HOUSE NOTEBOOK: Obama to US media: 'Behave' at the AP
  • President Obama reflects on Nelson Mandela’s legacy, South Africa’s past at the Washington Post
  • Barack Obama visits Mandela's Robben Island jail at the BBC
  • Nelson Mandela's wife draws strength from Barack Obama's words of comfort at the Guardian
  • Michelle Obama to youth: Channel Mandela's hope at the AP
  • Obama visits Mandela's former jail before Africa speech at Reuters

Mandela and Obama, a column by Bill Keller in the New York Times

Main photo: U.S. President Barack Obama participates in a town hall-style meeting with young African leaders at the University of Johannesburg in Soweto, June 29, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed

  • 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.

  • World

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