The lethal Obama's big SA welcome

2018-07-15 00:00

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Next week, South Africans will welcome former US president Barack Obama to the country. He will be celebrated because he is one of us – he is black, an African, a son of the soil…

Obama will deliver the Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture. However, the significance of the connection between Obama, as the first black president of the US, and our own first black president is overstated. Mandela did not side with the rich and powerful. He was also opposed to the deathly military adventurism that is so intrinsic to US foreign policy.

Obama refined this policy and included targeted assassinations of “brown” people. Remember how apartheid’s defence force targeted and assassinated exiled South Africans? As a journalist in the 1980s, I witnessed this destruction of families. And those people Obama’s fighters assassinated? Well, they were “terrorists”. The same as the people the apartheid regime assassinated.

That we will accept Obama uncritically says more about our own duplicities, expediencies, blindness, gullibility and, of course, our racial biases and prejudices. We like him because he is one of us – he is black.

We black people are, thankfully, not a homogenous group. Many of us see through the duplicity of America’s wars. For instance, Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted into the US military to fight against southeast Asians in the 1960s. This was what he said: “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me n***ger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”

Ali was prepared to go to jail instead of being forced to kill brown people on the other side of the world.

The Council on Foreign Relations, not a radical institution by any stretch of the imagination, recorded that “just three days into his presidency, Obama authorised his first kinetic military action: two drone strikes, three hours apart, in Waziristan, Pakistan, that killed as many as 20 civilians. The 542 drone strikes that Obama authorised killed an estimated 3 797 people, including 324 civilians.”

Obama reportedly told senior aides in 2011: “Turns out, I’m really good at killing people. Didn’t know that was gonna be a strong suit of mine,” the Council on Foreign Relations reported.

In sum, Obama’s presidency was a continuation of the violence of Washington’s foreign policies. He was also central to shoring up the power of Wall Street.

When the spectre of Donald Trump grew ever larger, US public intellectual Cornell West explained that “most black spokespeople shamelessly defended Obama’s silences and crimes in the name of racial symbolism and their own careerism. How hypocritical to see them now speak truth to white power when most went mute in the face of black power. Their moral authority is weak and their newfound militancy is shallow.”

West recounted how, after the financial global crisis hit the US, concerned citizens “begged and pleaded with Obama” to break with “Wall Street priorities, and bail out Main Street”. Instead, and in keeping with presidents before him, Obama sided with the powerful.

“In March 2009, Obama met with Wall Street leaders. He proclaimed: ‘I stand between you and the pitchforks. I am on your side and I will protect you.’ And not one Wall Street criminal executive went to jail,” West explained.

After Obama was elected, West and his colleagues also called for greater accountability of torturers of innocent people, and for transparency of US drone strikes that maim and kill innocent civilians.

Obama’s people first responded that no civilians had been killed, then that “a few had been killed” and then “65 or so had been killed”. When, West recalled, a US civilian, Warren Weinstein, was killed in 2015, “there was an immediate press conference with deep apologies and financial compensation”. Proof indeed that lives of non-Americans are cheap.

In an incisive analysis in 2012, journalist Tom Junod wrote: “Mr President, you are the first who has made use of your power to target and kill individuals identified as a threat to the US throughout your entire term. You are the first president to make the killing of targeted individuals the focus of our military operations, of our intelligence, of our national security strategy, and, some argue, of our foreign policy. You have authorised kill teams comprised of soldiers from Special Forces and civilians from the CIA. More than any other president, you have made the killing rather than the capture of individuals the option of first resort, and have killed them both from the sky with drones and on the ground with ‘night-time’ raids not dissimilar to the one that killed Osama bin Laden.”

Obama’s 2009 inauguration speech was a celebration of settler colonial achievement, and the divine mission that drove European expansion across the North American content against savages. Here is the pertinent passage: “In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted, for those that prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things – some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labour – who have carried us up the long rugged path towards prosperity and freedom. For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and travelled across oceans in search of a new life. For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the west, endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth. For us, they fought and died in places like Concord and Gettysburg, Normandy and Khe Sanh.”

Here, then, we have celebrations of US wars, but not a word about the almost complete annihilation of indigenous Americans. It seems the only people who mattered were those who “packed up their few worldly possessions and travelled across the oceans in search of a new life”.

This is not unlike what we were taught in school when I was a child. South Africa’s history started with the arrival of European settlers.

Finally, there has been an outcry, as well there should be, about Trump’s deportation and treatment of Latin Americans. But Obama deported more immigrants than Trump has (so far).


Do you think many people looked past what Obama did because he was the US’s first black president? SMS us on 35697 using the keyword OBAMA and tell us what you think. Include your name and province. SMSes cost R1.50

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