Obama no enemy of ours

2013-06-30 10:00

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Sentiments against him betray a poor understanding of our shared heritage

For a long time, the struggle against apartheid put us on a higher moral pedestal than most other countries in the world.

To prove it, we have more Nobel Peace Prize Laureates than any other developing country.

We even beat India, with its 1.2 billion people, its long history of struggle and its own Mahatma Gandhi.

I suspect it is this history of political morality that has driven some of our fellow citizens to protest against US President Barack Obama visiting our country.

I wonder, though, whether we should not be less enthusiastic about our morality now that we are no longer freedom fighters but a democratic society competing for global resources alongside many others.

The latter reality was first rudely brought home to me by the famed urban sociologist Manuel Castells in 1991. I had visited the University of California at Berkeley to apply for admission to its doctoral programme in city planning.

I am not exactly sure what occasioned the comment but Castells volunteered that South Africa and Africa could sink under the sea and the world would go on as if nothing had happened.

I remember walking out of that office deeply angered, hurt and humiliated.

But as the years went by, certain things began to happen that seemed to confirm what I had initially experienced as Castell’s insensitive observation.

First, after 1994, the world’s attention shifted to other parts of the world. Coverage of South Africa in the print media moved from the front to middle pages, and then finally disappeared.

The number of seminars, conferences and public lectures about the beloved country began to dwindle, and so did the attention of donors.

I remember feeling short-changed and that sense of entitlement again when the American financier George Soros gave a record $500 million to Russia in 1997.

I’m sure that came out of that sense of entitlement – that the world owed us something.

Increasingly, the only conversations taking place were not about the country or even the ANC but Jacob Zuma’s wives, his house at Nkandla, his Gupta friends and his family’s business interests.

South Africa had lost its gloss.

And so here we are, in a country existing on the margins of global public consciousness with an economy that is all of 0.66% of the global economy, seeking to embarrass a visiting leader of the only country we can really rely on as a potential best friend in the long run.

I know there is a great deal of excitement about China as Africa’s next saviour. That view ignores the fact that even though China’s economy is the second largest in the world, it is still not even half the size of the US’.

Neither does it have the breadth of academic and research institutions critical to innovation in the long run, and it has its own political tests to face going forward, particularly the question of how a political party of so few can govern a country of so many.

I may be a minority of one, but, in relative terms, I choose the US over China, Russia and many of the countries where you get beaten upside your head for who you are or what you say.

Politically and culturally, black South Africans have always been closer to the US than any other country in the world – in terms of our respective struggles against racism, our jazz heritage, in literature, as well as in fashion and sport.

Bernard Magubane described the relationship between Black South Africans and African Americans in the 19th century as the “ties that bind”.

It was a significant section of the American population, led by the likes of TransAfrica’s Randall Robinson, that forced Ronald Reagan to impose sanctions against the apartheid government, which became the final nail in the regime’s coffin.

Much of the generalised anti-Americanism in South Africa is borne of provincial ignorance of this long and proud history of struggle in the US.

Barack Obama was an active participant in that history.

True, Obama has not turned out to be the leader of the free world we wanted. But we would do well to remind ourselves that the man is the president of the US, and not of South Africa, Africa or the black world.

If he was not serving American interests, including American foreign policy, he would not have been elected and re-elected.

So why not let those countries directly affected by American foreign policy lead the protests against the US? The last time I checked, we do not have a foreign policy dispute with the US.

We do not have prisoners in Guantanamo and face no threat of drone strikes. Even more puzzling is that the so-called revolutionaries protesting Obama’s visit did not have the gumption to protest against George W Bush when he came here some years ago.

Is it because Barack is a brother? If anything, the brouhaha around Obama’s visit shows how leaderless this country has become.

And, frankly, it is not enough for President Zuma to mutter something about people’s right to protest. Duh, Mr President. I am sure Obama was looking for more love.

With the passing of a golden generation from the political scene, we lost leaders with the capacity to speak forthrightly to their people, even if it meant going against popular opinion.

We lost leaders with the long range and “helicopter view” that enabled the likes of Nelson Mandela to talk to the apartheid government against the opposition of militants in his own party.

Above all, we lost our worldliness.

The protests are informed less by geopolitical considerations and more by the pent-up frustrations of a people that have sadly become B-grade actors on the global public stage.

The protesters will most likely be so physically distant from the visiting delegation that they will stand out as a metaphor of South Africa’s distance even from the location of the strategic pressure points of American foreign policy, unable to influence the direction of global public affairs in the way a Mandela would have done not so long ago.

Until such time that the US presents a danger to our interests, we should leave the protestations to those affected by its actions.

Agree or disagree with him, Obama is not our enemy.

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