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A tribute to Barack Obama: He has been everything he said he’d be

Yonela Diko is currently the Spokesperson of the African National Congress (ANC) in the Western Cape. Prior to assuming his role in the ANC, he worked in various companies in the private sector. Between 2007-2009 he worked for one of the Leading Retirement Fund Companies, NBC Holdings as an Employee Benefits Consultant. After that he joined the Corporate Strategy and Industrial Development (CSID), an Economic Research Unit housed under the School of Economics at Wits University. He did his BCom degree at the University of Cape Town majoring in Economics.

This week, Barack Obama gave his farewell speech in this home city of Chicago, home of Abraham Lincoln and, as he likes to say, the crossroads of a nation. It is in this city that Obama realised for the first time what it meant for black people, for black unity, for black pride, to have a black man elected into the highest office in the city. Harold Washington, the first black mayor of Chicago, was an embodiment of what black people wanted to be on their best days – refined, handsome, brilliant, measured and, inevitably, a symbol of black pride.

Barack Obama may not directly accept it now, but watching what the election of Harold Washington did to the black community of Chicago, to the broken women he worked with as an organiser, to barber shops and inner city youth, for any gifted person with a burden to reassert black pride, Harold’s victory gave birth to Obama’s deep-seated desire to want to restore black pride, to make black people stand tall, and that Obama takes time to narrate this story in his memoirs speaks volumes of its impact on his life. Twenty-five years later, he did it. In 2008, Obama gave black people in America the greatest gift of all. Yes we can!

Like most people in the 2008 elections, I had originally been a Hillary Clinton fan, merely because of name recognition. I had grown up in the ‘90s when Bill Clinton was the embodiment of presidential class. A Rhodes scholar, a brilliant mind, 20-million jobs under his belt, the first surplus in government in years, a friend of our country, I did not mind him back at the White House, even as a first gentleman.

Unlike Americans, however, I had missed Obama’s monumental speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. I had missed his election to the US Senate, and I had missed his improbable journey to the Senate.

It is when Obama’s star started rising in those 2008 Democratic primaries that I bought his two books (Dreams From My Father and The Audacity of Hope) that I poured myself into finding out about this brother of mine taking over the continental United States by storm. Those two books took me on a journey that would help me judge every move this president would make later on in his life. I dare say that Barack Hussein Obama has been everything he said he’d be.

In Dreams From My Father, in trying to understand his own place in the black community, as the son of a white mother, he goes in too deep, trying to over-compensate and to prove his blackness, but he soon realised that even something as noble as blackness can ultimately become undefined, degenerative and even eat its own children. The young Barack, seeing his college friends become radicalised and eventually losing their minds, had to unpack blackness and find out what lay underneath.

Was it because most black men did not own a home that they were said to have low self-esteem, was it because they most did not have a college education, a car, healthcare, and after all these have been provided, how did a black men really feel about himself? It is here that Obama developed his pragmatism and a keen separation of class and race. There was a tendency to reduce racial problems to class problems. That is why in every racially charged incident, Obama has been outstanding in his ability to understand and articulate what was happening and to help America appreciate the complexity of racial dynamics.

It is however in his other book, The Audacity of Hope, written in 2006, that Obama truly framed his political ideology and what he understood ailed America at that time. Obama understood that the administration that would follow the calamitous George W Bush years would have it very hard. It’s not clear whether in 2006 he knew his would be that administration. And yet, Barack Obama became the administration that would follow George W Bush and to say the journey has been tough is an understatement.

Obama was of course gifted with two special things – his IQ and his ability to orate. More important, however, Obama understood, as Winston Churchill did, that words used skilfully can in themselves become acts of government. Obama’s words, used to frame policy discussions, took him to Oslo, where he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. And yet he knew that he was not Mandela, that he was just beginning his journey on the world stage. It is that comparison with Mandela and other inspirational leaders of African descent that has had many people ask what Obama did for Africa.

I say Obama gave Africa its greatest gift: He fixed America.

A fixed America is not only a great gift to Africa but to the world, and this is going to be so for a very long time. America is the consumer power of the world and that is not just a measure of American wealth but of American diversity. China or India may surpass America in wealth and income in the near future because of their sheer numbers, but these countries do not consume as much of other countries’ goods as America does. Whatever we think of China’s rise, that country still has very little need for what is not China.

A fixed America has reviewed its policies on Cuba and has set these two countries on a path to better days.

A fixed America reached an agreement with Iran to stop nuclear weapons manufacturing without firing a single bullet (unlike Bush who went to war trying to accomplish the same thing).

A fixed America continues to have moral authority to speak against Assad, against Turkey, against Burundi, and continues to underwrite so much peace and stability the world over.

Ultimately however, we cannot deny the symbolism that carves a special place in history for Obama – to be young, to be black, to be talented and to be the most powerful men on earth. There has never before been a black man holding the levers of world power, and he used every ounce of it to advance humanity.

This shall not be forgotten. Until Obama, black men who had held power, predominantly in Africa, had not set the best of examples of black leadership and use of power. Those who did, their lives had been cut short.

Thank you, Barack Hussein Obama. You have made us great. You have reignited the greatness of our heritage. DM


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