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Obama’s African Homecoming and South Africa’s Ambivalence


After all the clamoring for U.S. President Barack Obama to visit Africa and South Africa especially, he has finally embarked on what is much more than the token stop he made in Ghana a few years back. This visit could not come soon enough as patience for Obama and what is seen as his sidestepping of Africa has grown paper thin. On top of that, the piled up controversies animating America's relations with the rest of the world have begun thickening the residue of anti-American feeling lurking beneath the black South African political surface. This sentiment has begun to emerge in a few cases as unwelcoming hostility as Obama embarks on his first real safari to the continent since becoming America's first black president and, to boot, one with African origins that most African-Americans cannot speak of. (Indeed, many of us, like myself, have more knowledge of our Native Amerindian roots than our ancestral African origins!)

Obama-inspired mood swings

This swinging of the pendulum of South African sentiment regarding Barack Hussein Obama was predictable. Virtually the entire world initially reacted to the political ascendancy of Obama to the White House as if he were the Second Coming of Christ in the person of a young, cool, hip-looking African-American of Kenyan descent. As the late great Nina Simone intoned in her silky lyrics: 'Young Gifted and Black'! And of course, Obama was campaigning in his self-styled poetry of the 'audacity of hope.'

Once in office, as Obama so many times forewarned, he has had to govern in prose, a shifting of gears that diminishes the prudence of audacity as all politicians, no matter how iconic, must navigate multiple contradictions and carefully weigh trade-offs that will not capsize their political aspirations and ambitions. Most knowing figures in the media, the academy and in the professional life of political analysis know all of this. Yet knowing seems not to inoculate them from continually lambasting the ongoing existence of Guantanamo Bay or comparing him tongue-in-cheek to Former President Bush.

So the rapture of enthusiasm has descended into the doldrums of disillusion in a media environment feeding off of and encouraging fickleness. So, as the Obamas make their way to 'the beloved country,' the global community is being brought down to earth and we're having to be realistic about what Obama's visit means for South Africa and the rest of a continent that has long been yearning for his undivided attention. The problem is, in the political world, there is no such thing as 'undivided attention.' Africa has had to wait. It is widely known, Obama came into office in 2009 with an essentially Asian twin objective: winding down the US occupation of Iraq (already underway partly due his pressure during the presidential campaign) and beginning the same in Afghanistan which is entering its 'endgame' now.

Has an Asian agenda marginalized Africa?

This South Asia agenda was coupled with the urgency of refocusing on the East Asia-Pacific due to the rise of China, and America's losing strategic ground during the Bush years — all of which reflects an understandable national security interest approach to foreign policy and security strategy. If this reality is coupled with the domestic crisis agenda that was forced on him when he took office, Obama's deferral of a widely visible focus on Africa was inevitable — though, beneath the surface, there actually has been much going on. This has been the case in the security sphere with the support of AU efforts in Somalia, anti-LRA counterinsurgency in east-central Africa and DRC/Great lakes stabilization (where Obama recently appointed a new envoy, liberal former Senator Russ Feingold).

Over the past four years, Obama has undertaken enough in Asia to begin shifting more attention towards Africa. Given his Trans-Pacific Partnership 'rebalancing' to Asia in coordination with his commencing of transatlantic trade talks with Europe, Africa becomes America's next major strategic geo-economic challenge. The importance of partnerships here is the increasingly competitive environment created by Chinese-led emerging market penetration in Africa and the continent's surging growth trajectory.

There need to be proactive African proposals of engagement with the US that advance South Africa's national interests and the African continental interest generally. If, for example, the extension of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) is to be assured (and South Africa's place in it), President Jacob Zuma must engage Obama on implications that the US-EU transatlantic trade negotiations hold for AGOA. The EU, for its part, must be engaged on this as well given the SA-EU trade and development agreement and the controversy over the EU's Economic Partnership Agreements.

The Obama administration would be wise to integrate into its Africa policy the 'Beyond AGOA' strategy from the policy prescriptions and recommendations forthcoming from the Africa Program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Manchester Trade Group, which among other things calls for a greater emphasis on regional integration. It also calls on the EU to slow up its controversially unilateral EPA agenda in Africa so as to coordinate a more strategically considered transatlantic Africa policy, a recommendation that converges with much of Africa's resistance to the EPA onslaught and which might need to take on a wider context introduced by the US-EU Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. In short, there is much room for improvement in Obama's Africa policy.

From hero to demon?

In terms of the prospect of honoring Obama during his and his family's visit to South Africa, this must be done from an informed understanding of his responsibilities as a head-of-state rather than as the 'icon' who didn't live up to everyone's unrealistic expectations. It should be on the basis of his biography, including among other things his anti-apartheid student activist leadership. Obama's student activism against apartheid is a far cry from the mean-spirited protests by certain students and faculty against his visit and honoring by University of Johannesburg. Despite representing a University, they have made no effort to inform themselves about the context in which Obama's foreign policies have taken shape. Instead, the protestors, including COSATU and Muslim organizations, have thrown a wide charge sheet at Obama, from Israel's oppression of the Palestinians to drone strikes to NSA surveillance. These premeditated distortions cannot hide Obama's achievements.

Under trying circumstances, Obama has built up an impressive track record: getting the U.S. economy back on track coupled with an overall strategy of disengaging America from its hegemonic posture in the Middle East; his emphasis on a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis; his decimation of al-Qaeda as a prelude to his recent signaling of a winding down of the War on Terror and his reaching out to establish strategic partnerships with emerging powers. Also high on his agenda is a re-emphasis on nuclear non-proliferation and mutual war-head reductions with Russia.

However, Obama's failure, so far, to balance his attention toward Asia with comparable attention to Africa has been a glaring weakness in the diplomacy of a president whose roots are even more in Kenya than in Indonesia. But Jakarta's emergence as a prominent focus in Obama's Asia policy has, unfortunately, not been matched by a Kenya mired in debilitatingly contentious politics with the International Criminal Court. However, Obama's stop in Tanzania is no doubt intended as an acknowledgement of the East African Community's strategic geo-economic importance in the continent's – and South Africa's – African agenda.

Finally, Obama's interest in engaging the University of Johannesburg has to do with his emphasis on a 'new generation of leadership' to be nurtured globally in Africa and around the world. His speeches in Cairo, in Israel and recently in Northern Ireland bear this out. A new generation of African leaders is dear to Obama's heart given his own personal background and the demons that destroyed his father Kenyan father. This is why he is speaking at the university, as well as at the University of Cape Town.

All, in all, Obama's visit to South Africa (as well as to Senegal and Tanzania) ought to be approached in the pan-African spirit of constituting the homecoming of a 'Son of Africa' revisiting a Motherland which, for him, means more than just a turn of phrase for a unique African-American.

By Francis Kornegay, Jr., senior fellow on emerging powers at the Institute for Global Dialogue and a member of the expert team on global governance of the Woodrow Wilson International Center of Scholars.



About the Author

Francis A. Kornegay, Jr.

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more