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

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.”

African persona
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.

Among those caught up in the clashes was 20-year-old psychology student Teboh Mokoena who asked why the University of Johannesburg was giving Mr Obama an honorary doctorate. “What has he ever done for Africa? He has no HIV foundation, no poverty foundation. There is nothing he has done for Africa except persecute African leaders like Gadafy.”

The Libyan leader was one of the African National Congress’ few friends during the apartheid era. It’s not forgotten either that the US only removed Nelson Mandela from its terror watch list in 2008, 15 years after he was awarded the Nobel Peace Price.

“Madiba – the one that we know – he would support us,” said another student protester, Levy Masete, who joined others in chanting “Yankee go home!”, “Away with Obama, away!” and “Africa for Africans!”

Other small but vocal protests greeted Mr Obama in Cape Town where last night he completed the second leg of his three-country African tour. Ahead of his arrival in Tanzania, he made what was billed as an important speech on US-African relations, redefining the relationship as one of partnership rather than paternalism.

Policy change
Mr Obama dismissed suggestions that the change in policy was designed to counter China’s growing foothold on the continent. But his criticism of lopsided investment deals was seen locally as a veiled reference to Beijing.

“If somebody says they want to come build something here, are they hiring African workers? If somebody says they want to help develop your natural resources, how much of the money is staying in Africa?” he asked.

“Are they tolerating corruption that’s not benefiting the people but just benefiting a few at the top? These are questions Africa should be asking.”

A feisty South African president Jacob Zuma told a press conference with Mr Obama on Saturday that Africa shouldn’t be told “who its friends must be”, hinting that the US might need Africa these days more than Africa needs the US.

This sense of self-confidence filters down to the streets of Soweto where businessmen in BMWs and teenagers on quad-bikes mix with battered taxi vans.

Mopule Morapeli (53), a local science teacher, says the progress made in his lifetime is “unbelievable”.

“The lives of Madiba and president Obama show there is nothing holding Africans back. The young people are much better off. The opportunities they have today would have been impossible for me growing up.”