Africa Has a Dream: Obama

The new president will be welcomed by most ordinary Africans, if not by their rulers

Africa Features International North America Obama Politics US Politics

Not long ago, Western journalists tracked down Barack Obama’s youngest half-brother, George, aged 26, who lives on less than a dollar a month in a Nairobi slum. “If anyone says something about my surname, I say we are not related,” he said. “I am ashamed.” Kenyans as a whole are divided. Obama is an easily recognisable Luo name, which means that Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s supporters love Obama, but the dominant Kikuyu, for the same reason, supported Hillary Clinton.

For all that, Kenyans, Nigerians and many other Africans gave a warm welcome to the news that its prodigal son had won, just as Ireland did for JFK and Clinton. But Africa is not just a complicated but in many cases a defeated place and it will not readily identify with the new US president, the very picture of “can do” confidence, born of a personal success story as dramatic as any in American history. After all, one has to remember – no matter how united behind him they were in the end – how slow black Americans were to rally to his cause because they felt he was no child of slavery, no angry protest politician. That was, in essence, what the whole showdown with the Rev Jeremiah Wright was about.

Africans are far more familiar with the Jeremiah Wrights and Mich-elle Obamas than with people like Michelle’s husband. When black American radicals – Marcus Garvey, Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, Malcolm X – fled the US, it was to Africa they came, trying to fuse their anger with the same bitter notes of African anti-imperialism.

Africans understood that drama, expected tragedy and martyrdom to follow and if someone like Cleaver went back to the US trying to make a living out of selling Black Panther golf bags, he just got written off. Far better a hopeless, delusional visionary like Garvey or Malcolm X than someone just trying to make his life work.

On the whole, Africans understood three sorts of black Americans: political martyrs, sell-outs and those ambivalent pin-ups who became celebrities through sport or entertainment. On the other hand, visiting black Americans who dared claim to have played a major part in ending apartheid – Jesse Jackson, Leon Sullivan and a host of lesser political Reverends – were quickly sent packing. How dare they suggest South Africans had not won their own freedom?

South Africa, accounting on its own for more than one-third of Africa’s GDP, is still the key country in all this. And here, despite opinion polls showing 70 per cent support for him, Obama faces a hard sell. ANC leaders used to like to socialise with New York’s ex-mayor David Dinkins – it helped that Dinkins had been defeated by “white racism” – but Dinkins was utterly shaken when a live goat was sacrificed in his honour, and didn’t return.

Nelson Mandela became a close friend of President Clinton – helping him through his Monica moment – and was generally allowed such latitude that when he publicly told Clinton that if he tried to dissuade him from his friendship with Gaddafi, he could go “jump in the lake”, Clinton just roared with laughter. Then, in early 2001, President Thabo Mbeki had to confront the world’s most powerful black politician, the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell. Mbeki, whose aspirations to grandiosity were almost unlimited, clearly saw Powell as a rival and, as a black Republican, also a sell-out.

The first great confrontation came with the UN World Conference Against Racism, in Durban in September 2001. Mbeki had announced that the next decade would be dedicated to the struggle against racism and it was clear that the conference was supposed to magnify this on the world stage, replete with reparations for slavery and other colonial crimes. An NGO forum preceded the conference proper, adopted strongly anti-Israel positions and refused to balance this by condemning the evils of anti-Semitism. Israel walked out, swiftly followed by the US – which ruined the conference. The whole idea had been that the most powerful white nation, America, must be there in order to be condemned, to be allowed to apologise – and become the biggest reparations donor. Colin Powell, back in Washington, had pulled the plug on all of this.

He clearly blamed South Africa for the denouement: it was the host, it had encouraged an anti-Israel and anti-US atmosphere and it had by far the largest number of delegates and activists at the conference. Mbeki’s response was furious and immediate: suddenly it was announced that it would not, after all, be possible for the flagship of the US fleet, the USS Enterprise, to dock in Cape Town as planned, much to the chagrin of local shopkeepers who had been happily anticipating 6,000 free-spending US sailors. Then, just three days after the WCAR closed, the cataclysm of 9/11 occurred. Mbeki termed the event a “terrible tragedy” and Mandela roundly denounced the terrorists. But almost immediately Pretoria began to sound a note strongly critical of the US/UK strikes into Afghanistan and, as Muslim opinion hardened, so did that of the South African government. More than 1,000 South African Muslims were allowed to fly out to fight for the Taliban.

Mbeki brought enormous pressure to bear on Mandela, causing him to recant publicly his earlier support for the war in Afghanistan: he now apologised for his views as “one-sided and overstated” and the new line was that Osama bin Laden should not be blamed for 9/11 until he had had a proper trial, ie, never. Deputy President Jacob Zuma was then pushed forward to make a notable alteration in the government line. Speaking at a Durban mosque, he accused the US of double standards and equated the war in Afghanistan with 9/11, saying both involved acts of terrorism. Soon government ministers were openly accusing the US of “war hunger” and urging “rebellion” against the hegemony of Western interests and ideology in international life.

When Powell visited South Africa in May 2001, he expressed strong concern about Zimbabwe’s political crisis, and warned that it risked unravelling all the democratic gains in southern Africa. Although he was effusive in his public praise for Mbeki, he made it clear that he disapproved of South Africa’s effective support for Robert Mugabe. Since the South African government, remarkably, had not provided Powell with any public dinner or platform from which to speak during his visit, Powell decided to take the bull by the horns and give a speech at Witwatersrand University. Mbeki’s presidential office took this as a challenge. Powell’s visit to Wits quickly became a nightmare. He was heckled and held a virtual hostage for an hour by left-wing students, many of whom belonged to the ANC-affiliated South African Students Congress (Sasco), holding placards reading “White House Nigger”. There is little doubt that the ANC was usually able to control its Sasco allies and, more generally, what went on at Wits. Had the government really wanted to prevent a visiting dignitary from receiving such offensive treatment, it would certainly not have happened.

On his next visit to South Africa in September 2002 to address the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, Powell received exactly the same treatment. Powell was supposed to have spoken at 11am (a prime spot) but the South African chairman suddenly shifted him from this spot, allocating it instead to the rejectionist Palestinian foreign minister, Farouk Kaddoumi, who gave a bitterly anti-US speech. The displacement of the foreign minister of the world’s only superpower by an obscure functionary of a semi-state with no real foreign policy amazed most of those present but later all became clear. By the time Powell rose to speak in his later slot, the public gallery had been packed with anti-US activists who howled him down. There was strong criticism of South Africa in diplomatic circles for having apparently set up Powell for such treatment.

This was formally denied by Jacob Zuma. However, for those who knew the Mbeki style, it merely confirmed the suspicion that this slap in the face for Powell had been planned in the presidential office. Then, as usual, the hapless Zuma had been pushed forward to face the music. Condoleezza Rice learnt from Powell’s experience and never ventured to South Africa. Even the listing of Iraq, Iran and North Korea as the “axis of evil” earned her bitter criticism from Mbeki’s ANC, which was ostentatiously friendly with all three of those states.

Mbeki has now been propelled into well-deserved obscurity, but there is clearly a more general problem. The ANC and communist ideologues who control South Africa still think in terms of US imperialism being the principal opponent of any third world liberation movement. Republicans may be viewed as worse than Democrats, but anyone who represents the US government and is, indeed, its commander-in-chief, is by definition an enemy. Zuma has just been in the US trying to ingratiate himself with Rice and Bush but feelings have hardly been helped by the blanket White House refusal to allow any of their number to be photographed with him on account of his sleazy reputation. It is difficult to believe that things will be different with Obama.

As the news came in of the Obama victory, South African radio chat shows were full of questions like “But will he forget his roots? Will he take a correct stand on class issues? Will he support socialist countries like Cuba?” You got the strong feeling that many of those phoning in would have felt a lot more comfortable, on a know-your-enemy basis, with a US president who was a conservative white male.

But this leaves out of account Obama’s undeniable impact at the grass roots. The fact that he, a poor boy born to an African immigrant father, could rise in a single generation to become president dramatises America’s promise of openness and opportunity as nothing else could. This almost magical achievement will alone guarantee Obama huge crowds anywhere in Africa and will without doubt spur many more Africans to seek a future in America. The real questions Obama poses for Africa are how, if African political leadership is so bad, Africa has been able to export a young man able to lead America – and why is there no one of his calibre at the helm of any African state? Potentially, Obama has far more subversive messages, that race need not be determinant, that – as Asians already know – there is nothing specifically “white” about manic hard work and the Protestant ethic and that the whole victim and thus entitlement culture is something you have to get over. Not many of Africa’s elites are willing to listen to that but at grass roots it may be different.

President-elect Obama has often been compared to JFK – who, it should be remembered, nearly lost the Presidency in 1960 in a heavily Democratic year because the issue of his Catholicism cost him around 3 per cent of the vote. Yet Kennedy made the breakthrough. By 1968, when Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy ran for Democratic nominee, nobody even asked if they were Catholics. If Obama could achieve the same with race, his contribution in policy terms might be as slight as JFK’s and it would hardly matter, for a giant step towards post-racial normality would have been taken. Nothing could help Africa more.