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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Obama’s Diplomatic Visit To South Africa

Shannon Haugh |
July 1, 2013 | 9:32 p.m. PDT

Special to Neon Tommy

A Cape Town man protesting Obama's foreign policy (Shannon Haugh, Neon Tommy)
A Cape Town man protesting Obama's foreign policy (Shannon Haugh, Neon Tommy)
South Africa is the second of three African nations President Barack Obama visited in his tour of the continent. Just off the coast of Cape Town, Obama visited Robben Island, where former South African President Nelson Mandela was held prisoner. Later, Obama gave a speech at the University of Cape Town, South Africa’s oldest university. 

South Africans are naturally sympathetic to Obama as the first African-American President of the United States, however there was growing tension regarding his South African visit. While leaders from emerging economies like China have made extensive financial investments throughout the continent, the Obama administration has been criticized for neglecting Africa. 

In his fifth year in office, the Financial Times is calling this trip, "Obama's first real presidential trip to Africa." Some South Africans claim that the Bush administration invested more in the continent than the Obama administration has. In Pretoria, the country’s capital, the BBC reported that Muslims and trade unions held demonstrations protesting American foreign policy. Outside the University of Cape Town, another small demonstration took place. One placard read, “China is our friend.” A grassroots activist told me that “Obama is just a white man in a black person’s body” and that there was “no point for his visit.” 

Obama’s trip to Africa is largely a diplomatic effort. The trip is an attempt to communicate that the United States recognizes South Africa as a relevant and important player in global affairs. 

Obama also aimed to set a new trade agenda between the US and South Africa. As China gains more influence in Africa, the Obama administration sees it as imperative to further engage and build strategic economic partners in the region in order maintain superpower status. Obama’s speech in Cape Town articulated this economic agenda and emphasized how both countries would benefit from increased trade.  

In discussing economic growth, Obama emphasized how important it is for disenfranchised individuals to have access to jobs and healthcare. Obama said, “We believe that societies and economies only advance as far as individuals are free to carry them forward…true opportunity cannot exist when people are imprisoned by sickness, or hunger, or darkness.” 

Obama suggested that freedom and democracy are values that extend beyond American shores, saying “it shouldn’t be just Americans who stand up for democracy—it should be Africans as well.”  

Obama made a point of addressing the young people of South Africa. Noting that over 60% of Africans are under 35 years old, Obama emphasized that young Africans will determine the fate of the continent, and shared a story about meeting members of the African National Congress (ANC) while he was a college student and Apartheid was still in effect in the country. Meeting these leaders, Obama “learned about the courage of those who [fought Apartheid], and the brutality leveled against innocent men, women and children from Sharpeville to Soweto…[I ] studied the leadership of Luthuli, and the words of Biko, and the example of Madiba, and I knew that while brave people were imprisoned just off these shores on Robben Island, my own government in the United States was not standing on their side.  That’s why I got involved in what was known as the divestment movement in the United States.”

Obama addressed the criticism he’s received in South Africa, denying that democracy and transparency are “Western exports”.  Instead, Obama said that people in power make those arguments to “distract people from their own abuses.” and that these same people are those who “are willing to sell out their own country’s resources to foreign interests, just so long as they get a cut.” Although the ANC, South African’s ruling party, has a reputation for corruption, many South Africans blame Obama and global capitalism for the country’s socioeconomic problems.   

Contact special reporter Shannon Haugh here.



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