In Africa, Obama steps into frontpage moment that's not his own

Concerns about Nelson Mandela's health are taking some of the focus away from President Obama's African tour.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Barack Obama peers out from Section B, prison cell No. 5, on Robben Island, South Africa, Sunday. This was former South African president Nelson Mandela's cell, where spent 18 years of his 27-year prison term on the island locked up by the former apartheid government.

As he stood in Nelson Mandela’s former prison cell on South Africa’s Robben Island yesterday, President Barack Obama could be forgiven for feeling his message was being drowned out by echoes of the past. 

Visiting the continent for his first substantive tour since coming to office four and a half years ago, his message was meant to be all about the future — of Africa and a fresh relationship with the United States.

But largely for reasons beyond his control, his trip has been filled with resonances of the past.

President Obama’s visit to the continent coincides with a major crisis in South Africa’s collective psyche. The Father of the Nation, Nelson Mandela, who delivered them from apartheid to democracy 20 years ago, lies in "critical but stable" condition in the hospital.

With his family keeping constant vigil at the 94-year-old freedom fighter's bedside, and the headlines dominated by concerned commentary about his state of health, the visit of the 44th president of the United States and his family has largely been relegated to the inside pages of the newspapers.

Mr. Obama was also overshadowed in a way by his own history: Just a few years ago he was a newly-elected African American president with the hopes of his ancestral continent at his feet. But he was unable to make the trip to Africa earlier in his term when his star was at its highest, given struggling economic woes at home, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and ongoing issues with China. Today he is welcome still, but for many Africans the realities of his time in high office has taken the shine off.

Even the photo-op he provided to ecstatic press photographers in the darkened cell where Mr. Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison for his fight against apartheid was a reflection of others before him.

Only that when President Bill Clinton stood in the same cell, he did so with his good friend Mandela beside him. And according to some commentators, Obama has done far less for Africa than Clinton, who won friends all over the continent by scrapping trade tariffs for its goods.

Adam Habib, Vice-Chancellor of Wits University in Johannesburg said that expectations of Obama were different to those of Bush and Clinton and he had handled the Mandela issue well. "My gut feeling is that there was a sincerity in his references to him, they were done with a sense of dignity and nuance because, as he said, he regarded him as a personal icon," he says.Dr. Habib says that many Africans view Obama's biggest problem to be the expectations he himself had built around his early presidency as a liberal, peaceful leader – expectations now diminished by Obama's use of drones, involvement in further conflicts, and failure to close Guantanamo."I think many progressive South Africans are pretty disappointed and feel he speaks a good rhetoric but hasn't lived up to his own ideals," he says. "Everyone understands the complexities of having to make compromises but some of his compromises have been a violation of principal. There's a sense that the shine has begun to fade."

As he toured South Africa, Obama did his best to show how the lessons of Nelson Mandela were applicable to the future as well as instructional of the past.

Addressing young African at a Town Hall event in Soweto on Saturday, he told them that taking up the mantle of leadership on the continent would not be easy, but added: “Think of the man in our prayers today, think of the 27 years in prison, the hardship and struggles.

“Part of being optimistic is about keeping your head pointed towards the sun and your feet moving forward."

Asked about the importance of democracy in Africa, he referred to Nelson Mandela’s insistence of “constitutions, the rule of law, and respect for human dignity”.

Referring to African leaders who refuse to hand over power, he said “what Nelson Mandela stood for is that the well-being of a country is more important than the interests of any individual person.”

By taking his family on a tour of Robben Island, Obama was told by South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma he would also be investing in the future.  

Referring to South Africa’s first black president Nelson Mandela by his clan name, President Zuma said: “Your lovely children need to know what Madiba and all freedom fighters were subjected to. In this way, as future leaders, they will be able to build a better world in which no human being would be subjected to such a violation of freedom, basic human rights, and dignity.”

Obama delivered the keynote speech of his Africa tour at the University of Cape Town on Sunday evening – but even then he had a hard act to follow.

In 1966, Sen. Robert Kennedy gave a speech at the revered institution in which he urged South Africans to stand up against the apartheid system in what became known as the “Ripples of Hope” speech that was reported around the world.

With a less obvious adversary against which to rail, Obama sought to generate the same pathos by promising to “bring light” to sub-Saharan Africa in the form of a $7 billion investment in extending electricity to the two-thirds of the continent that still do not have it.

Coupled with pledges of university fellowships and internships for the continent’s young hopefuls, military training for local forces promoting peace and stability, and a fresh engagement with African leaders, Obama said his visit should be seen as a love letter to Africa Rising.

“America's been involved in Africa for decades but we are moving beyond a simple provision of assistance, foreign aid, to a new model, a partnership between America and Africa, a partnership of equals that focuses on your capacity to solve problems and your capacity to grow,” he said.

Amanda Kahunzire, a Ugandan studying electrical engineering at UCT, said Obama’s beautifully-crafted words had to be followed with action.

“He seems to understand us but we have heard all these things spoken about before and we haven’t actually seen much difference,” she said. “He may have good intentions but we’ll only know if he’s really a good guy when we see the results.”

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