Opinionista Alex Eliseev 2 July 2013

The things that Obama can teach us

Most couples choose sun-bathed beaches or five-star hotels as honeymoon destinations. My wife and I chose New York City. We plugged into the grid of what felt like the grandest city on earth; shot up the Empire State building; took a ferry to the Statue of Liberty; and lay on the ancient rocks in Central Park, listening to distant sirens and watching the sun melt over the skyscrapers. It wasn’t the time to pursue it, but one of my greatest dreams was to see US President Barack Obama deliver one of his iconic speeches. So you can imagine my excitement on Friday night, standing on the runway as the lights of Air Force One appeared in the dark sky…

New York wasn’t the only city we visited during our adventure. We also caught a bus to Washington DC, which was shaking off another cold winter. We found ourselves in the heart of American politics, past and present: the White House, Capitol Hill, Lincoln Memorial, the exact spot where Martin Luther King Jr. stood and spoke about his dream. I remember being deeply moved, especially given that my early childhood was spent in communist Soviet Union, which proved to be the antithesis of freedom and democracy, the enemy of the free world.

When Barack Obama landed in South Africa, I wasn’t bewildered or bedazzled by the size of his airplane or the formation of his helicopters. And I was only mildly curious about his limousine (the beast) and the swarm of secret service agents (who do, despite rumours, take off their sunglasses inside buildings and multiply like Mr Anderson in The Matrix).

What I was looking forward to the most was reporting on Obama’s address to youth leaders in Soweto, which was to take place on Saturday afternoon. I wanted to see him in action, both with a prepared address and then speaking off-the-cuff, answering questions from across Africa. I wanted to see him in person and reconcile my ideas of him with the real human being. I wanted to watch him bat against some of the tough questions which would no doubt come flying towards him: is this visit too little too late? Are you playing catch-up with China? What about the spying scandal, the drones, the wars, Guantanamo Bay, etc.?

The deep symbolism of the location of the Soweto talk and the timing of the visit in general were not lost on me. As Financial Times put it: “It is an eerily moving moment. America’s first black president enters the stage just as South Africa’s first black president is taking a bow.”

Whatever people may think of his leadership since being elected in 2008, Obama blazed into the history books and I wanted to be more than a spectator thousands of kilometers away, looking at him through a media telescope.

The Soweto town hall meeting landed up being a ten-hour assignment. We had to arrive at eight o’clock in the morning for a speech which was due to start at 3.30 that afternoon. By the time it was finished, I was hungry and exhausted. My recording equipment’s near-fatal malfunction didn’t make things easier.

But it didn’t matter. My mind was on fire. I was thinking about political power, leadership, the youth (In one of the queues I watched with interest a student reading Kafka and then arguing about imperialism and how systems need to be smashed and rebuilt), Africa as a continent, the invisible forces between China and the US and South Africa’s position in the world.

I was processing how, through a Skype link-up, Obama had united four countries in a debate on global current affairs. How he spoke without hesitation, dipping into a well of knowledge about, for example, regional terrorist groups across Africa. How he put to shame so many other politicians with his eloquence and human nature. Oh hell, I was thinking about how inspirational he was (and how everyone there – black, white, young, old – seemed to have felt the same).

Sure, every last detail of the event was carefully choreographed and prepared weeks in advance. The flags behind Obama were hung with photographers in mind. His speech included words like “Jozi” and “Mzansi” on purpose.

But it was not about agreeing with every word that came out of his mouth or siding with him on each policy issue. It was about inspiration and debate. About hearing political positions and testing them. It was about going back to the principles of those giants that came before him, including Obama’s own heroes: Nelson Mandela and Abraham Lincoln.

It was about escalating the political debate to a higher ground. A level above the Humphrey Mmemezis and the Dina Pules of the world. About feeling that politicians can be servants.

Whatever side of the spectrum you’re on, there are so many things to take away from Obama’s visit. Like the fact that politics doesn’t have to be about cheap and nasty insults about outfits in Parliament or running battles with the likes of Kenny “photo bomb” Kunene. It can be slick and intelligent. It can shake us and suck us in. It can engage us.

Here are just a few of the important lessons:

To Jacob Zuma:

We know making tectonic-plate-shifting and inspirational speeches to the nation is not your strong point. That’s fine. But please, when a chance to unite the country next arises, and it will, don’t miss it. Look past political interests and pull people together. Yes, elections are next year, but show us that politics can be inspiring and, yes, even beautiful. Also, a few more regular interviews and public discussions wouldn’t hurt.

To Zuma’s bodyguards:

Imagine, you don’t have to push, shove, threaten to “take journalists out” or push women to the floor. You can command respect without physical violence.

To government:

You know all that stuff Obama said about corruption, and how it can damage trade and investment and squeeze the financial arteries? And the stuff about how violence and terrorism flourishes in countries where government doesn’t look after its people? Yip, that’s kind of a big deal. So is getting education right and eradicating hunger.

To the NPA:

Obama wants you to have a new, permanent boss. Okay, he didn’t say that, but Stephen Grootes was probably hoping he would. My suggestion is send a team to the White House to learn how to set up media centres (Oscar Pistorius’ trial is coming). The level of organisation at the Soweto event was beyond impressive. From multi plugs to Wi-Fi, from accreditation to snacks, from reserved positions to last minute arrangements… everything worked flawlessly.

To South Africa:

Whether you admire Obama or were outside the US Embassy burning flags, you can be proud of the way this important visit was handled. If we are to be a global player, and want to send a message to the world that we are open for business (which doesn’t involve building a whole stack of stadiums) this is how it’s done.

History will judge Obama’s Africa legacy and whether he’s truly committed to the continent. During this trip, he announced some mega initiatives (Power Africa, the youth fellowship programme, the summit for African leaders, etc.) but he has big shoes to fill, particularly those of Bill Clinton.

Today, South Africa has some powerful leaders of its own. But they are few and the country remains trapped in a frightening leadership crisis.

Many local politicians and civil servants will feel outclassed by Obama and his crew. And so they should. The key is to aspire to be better. To serve the people. To learn how to walk through a field full of political landmines with grace. To stand for what you believe in, even if others disagree. How to mix politics and humanity. How to be classy. And how to harvest the incredible power of inspiration. DM

Alex Eliseev is an Eyewitness News (EWN) reporter. Follow him at @alexeliseev


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