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President Barack Obama (Photo by Dave Goodson)
After symbolic stops at two islands—Goree, off the coast of Senegal, where he stood in the “Door of No Return,” and Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Town, where he visited the cell occupied by Nelson Mandela for 18 of his 27 years behind bars for his anti-Apartheid struggle—President Barack Obama took to the mainland with a speech at Cape Town University on June 30.
Never one to miss an opportunity to connect with his audience, the president greeted the assembly of students in several African languages. “See, I’ve been practicing,” he said to applause and cheers from the crowd.
And this generous reception was in marked contrast to the 200 or so protesters who greeted Obama upon his arrival. Their chants and placards denounced the president’s foreign policy as “arrogant, selfish and oppressive.” They appeared particularly upset about the administration’s use of drones in the military strikes against individuals they defined as terrorists.
Then it was down to business, and the term “partnership” resonated throughout his hour-long speech. And only the words “initiative” and “women” were mentioned more.
“Now, America has been involved in Africa for decades,” Obama said as he warmed to his subject. “But we are moving beyond the simple provision of assistance, foreign aid, to a new model of partnership between America and Africa—a partnership of equals that focuses on your capacity to solve problems and your capacity to grow. Our efforts focus on three areas that shape our lives: opportunity, democracy and peace.”
Clearly, the South African government is at the center of his plan, and that was underscored when he announced a key initiative.
“So today, I am proud to announce a new initiative,” he said. “We’ve been dealing with agriculture; we’ve been dealing with health. Now we’re going to talk about power—Power Africa—a new initiative that will double access to power in sub-Saharan Africa. Double it.” The response to this commitment was thunderous ovation.
“We’re going to start by investing $7 billion in U.S. government resources,” he continued. “We’re going to partner with the private sector, who themselves have committed more than $9 billion in investment. And in partnership with African nations, we’re going to develop new sources of energy. We’ll reach more households—not just in cities, but in villages and on farms. We’ll expand access for those who live currently off the power grid. And we’ll support clean energy to protect our planet and combat climate change. So a light where currently there is darkness, the energy needed to lift people out of poverty—that’s what opportunity looks like.”
The trip to Africa was also an opportunity for Obama to repeat his admiration for the ailing Mandela, who is on life support. No meeting was planned between the two men, who share a number of commonalities, none more obvious than being the first Black presidents of their country.
“Now, obviously, today Madiba’s health weighs heavily on our hearts,” Obama said, using Mandela’s clan name. “And like billions all over the world, I—and the American people—have drawn strength from the example of this extraordinary leader and the nation that he changed. Nelson Mandela showed us that one man’s courage can move the world. And he calls on us to make choices that reflect not our fears, but our hopes—in our own lives, and in the lives of our communities and our countries. And that’s what I want to speak to all of you about today.”
In taking his measure of the current economic, political and cultural condition of the continent, the president focused on women—a topic that was unavoidable because he was traveling with his wife, his two daughters and his mother-in-law.
“Just to editorialize here for a second, because in my father’s home country of Kenya—like much of Africa—you see women doing work and not getting respect,” he said. “I tell you, you can measure how well a country does by how it treats its women. And all across this continent, and all around the world, we’ve got more work to do on that front. We’ve got some sisters saying, ‘Amen.’”
The president will not be going to his father’s homeland, but his trip does include a day in nearby Tanzania, which, at the moment, is experiencing an outbreak of violence and demonstrations.
Most of the African nations given special mention in his speech were those where democracy appears to be working. However, it was curious to hear him berate and then praise the way things are progressing in Zimbabwe.
“Just look at your neighbor, Zimbabwe,” he reminded his South African audience, “where the promise of liberation gave way to the corruption of power and then the collapse of the economy. Now, after the leaders of this region—led by South Africa—brokered an end to what has been a long-running crisis, Zimbabweans have a new constitution; the economy is beginning to recover. So there is an opportunity to move forward—but only if there is an election that is free and fair and peaceful, so that Zimbabweans can determine their future without fear of intimidation and retribution. And after elections, there must be respect for the universal rights upon which democracy depends.”
Curiously, there was no mention of China, but it’s hard to believe that Obama and his administration are not wary of the power and influence, the inroads, literally and figuratively, the country has made throughout Africa, where it is estimated that 30 percent of the world’s mineral reserves await refining. Moreover, bilateral trade between Africa and China has ballooned from $10 billion in 2000 to more than $200 billion this year. He will get some semblance of the Chinese presence when he arrives in Tanzania, particularly if he traverses the marketplace or ventures near the rail lines.
Obama ended his speech where it began: on the indomitable spirit and determination of the African people. “It is that spirit, that innate longing for justice and equality, for freedom and solidarity—that’s the spirit that can light the way forward. It’s in you. And as you guide Africa down that long and difficult road, I want you to know that you will always find the extended hand of a friend in the United States of America,” he promised.