Obama encounters a South Africa that has grown in self-confidence
US president’s speech seeks to redefine US-Africa relationship as one of partnership
US president Barack Obama visits the former prison cell of Nelson Mandela on Robben Island, South Africa yesterday. Photograph: Carolyn Kaster/AP
Police sirens and the roar of helicopters were once synonymous in Soweto with the worst violence of the apartheid era. But at the weekend they heralded the arrival of Barack Obama, America’s first black president, for a “town hall” meeting that demonstrated just how far South Africa has come.
Young professionals from the townships were joined by students from across Africa to question Obama about America’s role on the continent. The hot topics were not war, conflict or famine – things so often associated with this part of the world – but investment, trade and employment opportunities for Africa’s increasingly educated workforce.
“I don’t want Africa to continually just be at the bottom of the supply chain,” said Obama to boisterous applause.
“You produce the raw materials, sold cheap, and then all the way up the chain somebody else is making the money and creating the jobs and the value . . . As you move into positions of power, I want to make sure that you’re negotiating a good deal with these other countries.”
A fortnight ago, the US president was playing up his Irish roots and giving plenty of “is féidir linn”, but this week he is back to being an African, instantly winning over the crowd with a greeting of “Yebo Mzanzi!” (Yes, South Africa!).
Would he as quickly drop his African persona once he had returned to Washington, the students wanted to know. “As President of the United States, I want to create some jobs in Africa as well,” he assured them. “My attitude is that the more successful African entrepreneurs are, then the more they’re going to be purchasing and interested in purchasing US goods.”
The young audience was a little star-struck but by no means cowed by the prospect of quizzing Obama, a tangible expression of South Africa’s self-confidence 20 years after the ending of apartheid. He fought off questions about US foreign policy against terrorism and about the environment and wriggled out of a definite commitment on extending a favourable trade deal with Africa until 2019, saying Congress still had to be convinced on the matter.
“I am looking forward to seeing the follow-through,” said Nomo Kana, a recently-graduated nuclear scientist, after the president’s address. “We want America to engage further. Our generation no longer seeks handouts. We are empowering ourselves.”
Mr Obama’s visit hasn’t been universally welcomed. There were protests outside the campus where police fired rubber bullets and stun grenades to disperse the crowd.