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2013-06-09 14:00

Obama’s trip to Africa an ideal moment to engage American expats.

An assignment to cover Ronald Reagan’s presidency for ABC News proved illustrative.

Among the most fascinating observations was how other countries managed their relationship with the US.

When foreign leaders visited the US for meetings with the president, the White House, almost always, was their last stop.

Normal, or state visits, as opposed to emergency consultations, followed predictable, almost identical paths to Pennsylvania Avenue.

They almost always began with meetings between the heads of state and their expatriates living in America.

The reasons quickly became obvious.

Hyphenated Americans – Jewish, Italian, Greek, German, Spanish, etc, et al – serve as the vanguard of their motherland’s interests in the US, assuming their homelands are democratic.

These are the Americans who write letters to legislators, raise money for or against candidates, show up for demonstrations, volunteer for campaigns, and do all the other things citizens do to effect policy in the US.

In addition, they are the nexus of business and civil society relationships between America and their ancestral homes.

The only exception to this rule concerned African-Americans, whose expatriate relations with their particular motherlands had been all but obliterated by slavery and cultural genocide.

While I found it very instructive how other countries approached American foreign policy, I was really amazed to discover that American presidents rarely reciprocated this behaviour.

Perhaps, as a superpower, they felt they had no need to.

The normal instruments of US economic, cultural and military power were all the tools they needed. Perhaps.

Representatives of an estimated 30?000 Americans living in South Africa are hoping President Barack Obama will change this pattern.

His trip to Africa later this month is an ideal moment to engage expatriate Americans – not only in furtherance of US interests, but as indispensable intermediaries of South African and African concerns and realities.

Americans living overseas offer important bridges of connection, understanding and goodwill in the global village.

There are an estimated 100?000 Americans living in Africa.

The largest number of them, about a third, reside in South Africa, which has overtaken Ghana as the most preferred country for American settlement.

In many ways, South African cities at least look and feel like those in the US.

Reverend Jesse Jackson and others often describe South Africa as the continent’s most American-like country.

And in South Africa, Obama will find an almost unprecedented history of engagement between private Americans and South Africans, going back 150 years, during which the people of the US have played an important role in shaping South Africa.

Americans were prominent in the development of the gold-mining industry in the Witwatersrand in the early 20th century, which of course was the vital foundation in establishing apartheid, the infrastructure for which was also borrowed from America.

On the other hand, US citizens – mostly African-Americans – were instrumental in the emergence of African nationalism and, ultimately, the international anti-apartheid movement. South Africans who studied in the US and engaged with civil rights leaders returned to their country to establish the ANC.

According to research by Moeletsi Mbeki, deputy chairman of the SA Institute of International Affairs, “in the 1880s the American Methodist Episcopal Church responded to the call from black South African religious leaders to help them to gain control of the missionary churches that were established by European missionaries.

In particular, this led to the founding of the Ethiopian Church that was to be one of the building blocks of the liberation movement.”

Finally, Mbeki added, American universities provided postgraduate training for South Africans of all races who returned home to play leading roles in the emergence of a modern South Africa.

Beginning in the 1800s, Americans have been living and working in South Africa. They have raised children, built families and businesses, investment funds and NGOs. They have initiated a binational-relations association, maintained an ongoing expat association and started South African chapters of diverse US organisations. They have established orphanages, churches, schools, youth-development centres and clinics. Not incidentally, they supported both Obama’s campaigns in overwhelming numbers.

Eugene Jackson is a prominent African-American businessman who’s lived in South Africa for 17 years. He believes the US has wasted precious opportunities by ignoring its expatriate community.

“There are more African-Americans living in Africa,” Jackson said, “than any other place outside America.

“If Africa is the new economic frontier,” Jackson added, “and the US wants to capitalise on that, then President Obama must begin to facilitate the vast network of relationships that already exist.”

Michael Sudarkasa, chairman of the SA-American Partnership Forum, says these relationships make American expats “stakeholders and partners in the development of the continent’s largest economy”.

Ordinary Americans are doing extraordinary things in Africa, as neighbours and as a community. They are the very best possible American ambassadors to a wide spectrum of people.

During his visit to Ghana in 1999, Obama said: “I see Africa as?.?.?.?partners with America on behalf of the future that we want for all our children?.?.?.?Our commitment must be measured by more than just the dollars we spend. I have pledged substantial increases in our foreign assistance, which is in Africa’s interests and America’s. But the true sign of success is not whether we are a source of aid that helps people scrape by; it is whether we are partners in building the capacity for transformational change.”

In furtherance of this goal, Obama should meet with representatives of his compatriots in South Africa as an affirmation to Americans across the continent that we play an essential role in Africa’s partnership with the US.

»?Walker is an independent journalist from the US who has lived in SA since 1999

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