With grace and poise Michelle Obama wowed the 2,000 people squeezed into the Regina Mundi Church on Wednesday. She would later admit she battled to keep her composure. Her voice, often heavy with emotion conveyed not just her passion for her message to the young people of Africa, but also her sincerity. She embodies the change she wants to see in the world. Gandhi, of course, would have been proud.
Hers was a stirring message to young people to step up to the plate. “I hope that all of you will reject the false comfort that others’ suffering is not your concern, or if you can’t solve all the world’s problems, then you shouldn’t even try,” she said.
It was a message that unbridled the smarting apathy that’s taken root among the more privileged of South Africa’s young. Michelle Obama, all the way from the wrong side of the tracks of Chicago, Illinois, invoked the history of the 1976 uprising with staggering attention to detail, reminding young South Africans that the challenges we face today are “no less meaningful, no less inspiring and no less urgent than what you read about in the history books”.
Away from the overdone clamour of the potential of nationalised mines, and throngs being scared away from South Africa by a motor-mouth, this simple message of owning up to our history with a view to affecting our future is one, I suspect, that has been made before in South Africa. But until now it’s been met with eyes glazed over in abject boredom. It has taken a lilting American inflection to remind us to shoulder some of the responsibility for the world we have inherited.
There is little doubt that Michelle Obama’s message was a relevant one. Juxtaposed against the hot air emanating from the ANC Youth League conference, it was especially timely in reminding us of the challenges of young people who are not Julius Malema, “creating jobs in (the) global economy, promoting democracy and development, confronting climate change, extremism, poverty and disease”. Sub-Saharan Africa, let’s not forget, remains one of the poorest regions in the world. It also remains the site of a battle of wills among the world’s super powers. Super powers are known in these parts to show their authority, not to ensure autonomy. Though there is an accelerating unification of the world’s economic order, it continues to be controlled by states which retain the power to mould both the economic and international political environment.
The New York Times this week described the South African impression of the US as one of “prickly ambivalence”. While it may seem that South Africans are schizophrenic about embracing Michelle, wondering what exactly the Americans are after in these parts, American motives in Africa must be probed. Political failure, civil unrest, famine and disease have dogged progress in Africa and the American position has been one of dangling aid and trade as reward for a culture of democracy. But the insatiable American appetite for energy has also revealed a hypocrisy in its high road. “Officially and unofficially,” The New York Times reports, “Americans do business with one of the undisputed human rights global bad boys, Equatorial Guinea, Africa’s fourth biggest oil exporter.” The US as a sovereign state is forced to look after its own severely dashed bottom line, but as the renewed clamour for Africa grows, it remains for Africans to decide how its relationships with the likes of the US will progress.
Throughout the 1990s, sub-Saharan Africa accounted for less than 1% of world trade and some 12% of the world’s population. It was a staggering imbalance that was enhanced by the imposition of policies designed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to secure loans to support the weak economies of the region. The effect of these policies has been dramatic cutbacks on government spending on education, health services and welfare in these countries. By (informed) popular account, sub-Saharan Africa spends four times as much on debt repayment as it does on healthcare. Debt repayments outstrip aid to Africa by some $2 billion a year. Debt repayments in some cases even outstrip the money received in loans. Sub-Saharan Africa lines the pockets of the developed world.
Michelle Obama, in her eloquence, grace and disarming humility has allowed us to realise the scale of the challenges that lie before us. And she’s done so with what I thought was a sincere concern for the future of this continent. But if we are indeed to shape our futures, we have to do so without looking for help outside of ourselves. The US will not, in classic Hollywood style, save South Africans from the spectre of Julius Malema. We’ll have to do that for ourselves, if we so want.
The US is, of course, not the only economic muscle on steroids throwing its weight around Africa. China, India and Turkey have similarly thronged to Africa to reap whatever they may sow. US secretary of state Hillary Clinton warned just a few weeks ago of a creeping “new colonialism” in Africa from foreign investors and governments interested only in extracting natural resources to enrich themselves. The Chinese courtship of Africa undoubtedly changes the rules of the game. There will be further jostling for African resources and African hearts. But neither the Chinese, nor the Americans will save us from ourselves.
African problems need African solutions. Obama may channel the energy to seek these solutions, while the Turkish dot our skylines with spectacular architecture and the Chinese build yet another shopping complex in southern Johannesburg, but our future will not arrive neatly packaged from some other place. If anything, Obama’s speech and the message she’s been carrying through her trip to South Africa and Botswana should remind us not to seek saviours, but to seek instead our own solutions.
Back at a group discussion at the Young African Women Leaders Forum, where African leadership was being feted, one woman stood up and said, “After these two days, the US embassy cannot say they empowered us. We empowered ourselves”.
I reckon Michelle would agree. DM