South Africa

When the world’s most powerful man came to town

By Ranjeni Munusamy 2 July 2013

It was like when well-heeled out-of-town relatives come to stay when the father of the host family has just lost his job and the daughter of the visiting family has run off with the postman. Everyone tries to be sensitive and cordial even though a cloud is clearly hanging over the visit. Such was the atmosphere when US President Barack Obama arrived on an official visit at a time when his government is wading through controversy and South Africa is anxious over the health of Nelson Mandela. But it all went swimmingly. The American First Family turned out to be courteous guests who tapped into the national mood and sat with us a while in our time of need. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

When US President Barack Obama said during his speech at the University of Cape Town on Sunday evening that “Madiba’s health weighs heavily on our hearts”, he looked like he genuinely meant it. In fact, concern for Nelson Mandela’s dire health status was threaded through every event during Obama and his family’s visit to South Africa, and even during the preceding visit to Senegal.

Had former president Nelson Mandela not been ill and hospitalised, the Obamas’ three-night stay in South Africa would have had a different texture – probably more business-like and certainly more pomp involved. But from the time the South African presidency announced a week ago that Mandela’s condition had become critical, the planning operation around the US president’s visit had to take into account the around the elder statesman’s health and had to be able to adapt accordingly.

Obama’s week-long trip to three African countries involved one of the biggest security operations of Obama’s tenure, reported to have cost up to US$ 100 million. The Washington Post obtained a confidential planning document showing that US military cargo planes brought 56 vehicles, including 14 limousines, and three trucks loaded with sheets of bullet-proof glass to cover the windows of the hotels where the first family was staying.

Fighter jets were flying in shifts, giving 24-hour coverage over the airspace where the Obamas were and a navy aircraft carrier, with a fully staffed medical trauma centre, was stationed offshore in case of an emergency. Hundreds of secret service agents were flown in for the security and transportation operations.

But despite all these elaborate, over-the-top security arrangements, the Obamas themselves were mindful of the national mood and turned down the volume accordingly. From Michelle Obama’s muted wardrobe to the US president repeatedly reminding the White House press corps reporters accompanying him on the trip to “behave yourselves”, it is clear that they did not want to make a big splash.

While the spying revelations contained in top secret National Security Agency documents leaked by whistle-blower Edward Snowden is top of the agenda in the US, the issue was played down during the visit, so as not to cause more sensation. Although Obama fielded a question regarding the uprising in Egypt during a joint press conference with President Jacob Zuma on Saturday, the agenda for the visit – seeking to improve trade and investment – was kept on course throughout.

The South African government became aware of the possibility of Obama visiting Pretoria as early as last year but the trip was only confirmed a few months ago. This kicked off a massive planning operation led by the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) and the United States Embassy in South Africa.

Because of the influence of South Africa’s liberation struggle on Obama’s political life and outlook, the choice of events and site visits in this country was particularly important. And with Obama’s daughters Sasha and Malia on the trip, it would be an educational and emotional journey too.

According to the US Embassy spokesman John Hillmeyer, the White House expressed preferences for the type of activities the president and his family would want to engage in and the embassy investigated these and made recommendations for the programme. A pre-advance team from the White House arrived some weeks ago to do the initial scouting and planning. The advance teams to set in place the arrangements in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town arrived two weeks before the visit.

A South African government official with knowledge of the planning operation played down rumours of tensions between the two countries’ security officials. He said, however, that the South Africans did need to stamp their authority due to the Americans’ “paranoia” and issues such as the number of assault weapons that would be brought into the country.

He said that even previous multilateral meetings with numerous heads of state simultaneously in the country, such as the recent BRICS summit, did not involve as elaborate a security operation as the visit by the US president. The official said that while other African countries are generally more compliant to the Americans, the South Africans made sure that their own security protocols were complied with.

Hillmeyer said that there was “excellent collaboration” between the SA and US governments on the planning for the trip. “There were lots of moving pieces and it was not easy working out the logistics but it turned out to be a great success.

“For us, the best measure of success is that everyone is talking about the policies and what the leaders said. The stories are not about unfortunate logistical problems or anything like that. They are about what the leaders said,” Hillmeyer said.

He said the town hall meeting for the Young African Leaders Initiative at the University of Johannesburg Soweto campus was one of the most complex events ever co-ordinated for a US president. While town hall meetings are commonplace in the United States, the format of the meeting involving participation of youth from locations in three other African countries posed huge technological challenges. It involved three separate satellites and four satellite trucks to synch together the live links between South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda.

South Africa’s eNCA channel provided the live visuals with six cameras around the hall to cover Obama strutting about the stage and those in the crowd asking him questions. The footage was aired to a satellite for other broadcasters to pick up, which is how the SABC, CNN, and about 10 other television and radio broadcasters across the African continent were able to show the event live – without any glitches.

Hillmeyer said while there were three main themes to the announcements made by Obama, agriculture and food security; health and energy, the US president touched on many other issues, including Zimbabwe, corruption, women, youth and security.

“Our job is to set up the environment for our president to come in and address the questions everybody has. We don’t script the president,” Hillmeyer said.

The visit was of high strategic importance for both the US and South Africa, which is why they did not consider postponing the trip after Mandela became seriously ill. However, both sides monitored the elder statesman’s condition closely, with the South Africans advising on cultural sensitivities. The South African government was worried that the likelihood of Obama returning to Africa on an official visit anytime soon was very slim and therefore decided it would be best to proceed with the arrangements.

Had Mandela passed away before Obama’s arrival, both sides were prepared for a change in the itinerary as it would have been impossible for the South African government to host the American president and deal with the massive logistical arrangements for the mourning period.

Dirco spokesman Clayson Monyela said this had been a very important visit to convey that South Africa was “open for business”. He said there was now a “paradigm shift in relations” from that of donor and aid to trade and investment. He said the South African government was “quite happy” that all the preparations led to a “smooth and successful visit with no glitches”.

“We would like to thank US president for being humble enough to understand that the South African government was handling a delicate, sensitive situation with regard to Madiba’s health. They were sensitive to the family and the government to allow us to continue managing the issue without it interfering with the official visit,” Monyela said.

So in the end, it all turned out okay, and in some ways, the presence and sentiments expressed by the Obamas during their visit were soothing to our troubled nation. From Obama’s statements and the US First Lady’s travel journal, it is clear that they were moved by their trip to South Africa when the country is hurting, and that it will be “an experience we will never forget”. DM

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama and First lady Michelle Obama tour the cell block on Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was held captive near Cape Town, June 30, 2013. Obama visited a bleak former prison island off the coast of South Africa on Sunday to pay tribute to ailing anti-apartheid hero Mandela and set the stage for a speech urging Africans to strive for prosperity and democracy. REUTERS/Jason Reed

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