President Obama visited South Africa at a time when the nation is consumed with concern for the ailing health of Nelson Mandela. During their stay in South Africa, Obama and his family visited the Robben Island prison in which Mandela spent 18 years, and the stone quarry where he and his fellow prisoners were forced to work. Obama met privately with Mandela’s family to offer his support at this difficult time and observed that Mandela and South Africa’s transition to democracy is a ‘personal inspiration’. In a meeting with young African leaders in Soweto, Obama was keen to spread his ‘yes, we can’ message to Africa’s next generation of leaders and to encourage them to take inspiration from Mandela’s and Desmond Tutu’s moral courage.
On Sunday 30 June, at the University of Cape Town, Obama gave the keynote speech of his three-nation Africa tour. This speech, delivered in the continent’s largest economy, was to the whole African continent. He explained that his passion for politics was sparked by the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. The venue of the speech was significant.I In 1966 at the University of Cape Town, Bobby Kennedy had delivered his ‘Ripple of Hope’ speech, in which he said:
Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope… those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
In his speech Obama said that;
It would have seemed inconceivable to people at that time—that less than 50 years later, an African American President might address an integrated audience, at South Africa’s oldest university, and that this same university would have conferred an honorary degree to a President, Nelson Mandela. It would have seemed impossible. That’s the power that comes from acting on our ideals. That’s what Mandela understood. But it wasn’t just the giants of history who brought about this change. Think of the many millions of acts of conscience that were part of that effort.
Obama announced that America is moving toward a ‘new model of partnership’ with Africa, which will be beyond the provision of foreign aid and toward a ‘partnership of equals’ and explained that America is committed to ‘putting muscle behind African efforts’ to resolve conflicts and insecurity in hotspots around the continent. He specifically mentioned insecurity and conflict in the Sudans, Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo and his concern about the political situation in Zimbabwe.
Obama spoke of his hope that greater democracy and peace in Africa will lead to closer relations and opportunities between America and Africa. He announced America’s commitment to invest billions in the agricultural sector in Africa, in order to improve agricultural productivity, reduce poverty and prevent famine. He spoke of America’s continued commitment to support African efforts to improve child and maternal health and to combat HIV/AIDS on the continent and the possibility of a future ‘aids-free generation’ in Africa.
The announcement of the new initiative—Power Africa—was a key point of the speech. The objective of this initiative is to ‘double access to power in sub-Saharan Africa’. The plan is to partner with the private sector and African countries to ‘develop new sources of energy’. Energy is key to development in Africa, as elsewhere, and many large energy companies are American. Obama said;
Access to electricity is fundamental to opportunity in this age. It’s the light that children study by; the energy that allows an idea to be transformed into a real business. It’s the lifeline for families to meet their most basic needs. And it’s the connection that’s needed to plug Africa into the grid of the global economy. You’ve got to have power. And yet two-thirds of the population in sub-Saharan Africa lacks access to power—and the percentage is much higher for those who don’t live in cities.
South Africa’s struggles are far from over. The country is being forced to begin contemplating a future without the leading light of Nelson Mandela. The legacy of apartheid is still glaringly obvious throughout the country, with extreme inequality, poverty and violence a significant problem. South Africa is a leading democracy on the African continent but its new struggle is to ensure that more of its people begin to benefit from South Africa’s wealth. Obama’s speech was a buoyant reminder to South Africans at an anxious time, that their society has inspired the world. Obama extolled:
If there’s any country in the world that shows the power of human beings to affect change, this is the one. You’ve shown us how a prisoner can become a President. You’ve shown us how bitter adversaries can reconcile. You’ve confronted crimes of hatred and intolerance with truth and love, and you wrote into your constitution the human rights that sustain freedom.
Sabrina Joy Smith is a PhD candidate with the Centre for the Study of the Great Lakes region of Africa at the Institute for Development Studies and Management, Belgium. She is currently based in New South Wales. Image courtesy of Flickr user Government of South Africa.