Sunday, July 27, 2008

Feedback - Obama & Africa: a local perspective


On Monday 22nd July 2008 Wits University and The Weekender hosted a debate on the significance of Barack Obama for Africa and the potential foreign policy positions that his government would take towards the continent. Before the session I compiled a reading pack that provides a collection of literature for those looking for more resources on this topic.

Speakers included:

I. Achille Mbembe, professor of political science and history at Wits;

II. Tony Leon, Member of Parliament and former leader of the DA;

III. Monica Stewart, Vice Chair of the SA chapter of Democrats Abroad.

VI. Stephen Grootes, a journalist with Talk Radio 702.


I. Professor Mbembe
explored the meaning of Barack Obama in three remarks, the first of which concerned Obama’s personal identity, and particularly how he has been able to transcend traditional notions of race:
So, as far as I am concerned, what is potentially productive, especially for us here in Africa, is the way Obama opens up and pluralizes the concept of blackness itself; the way he takes it away from blackness as a way of limiting one’s choices; the way he firmly writes it as an openness to the world, to the unexpected, to what is to come, what we can hope for – the way in which for him, to be black means turning one’s back to the politics of victimhood in order to embrace the politics of worldliness and the politics of possibility. [Original emphasis]

The Professor’s second comment interrogated what Africa means to Obama. In this he made a distinction between Obama’s politics of self-identity and Obama’s politics of power:

As is made clear in his Dreams from my Father, his own upbringing hardly typifies the African American experience. His identification with Africa has an added poignancy if only because, to a large extent, Africa for him also stands as the figure of the Absent Father – that is, a source of profound pain, longing and trauma he struggled to overcome in his quest for manhood.

However, this relationship is not un-thinking, nor overly affected by sentiment:

“Clearly he is not an Afrocentrist if by Afrocentrism we mean a current of thought that advocates a form of cultural and intellectual apartheid based on the belief in fundamentally distinct and internally homogenous ‘African’ ways of knowing and feeling about the world, ways which only members of the group can possibly understand.”

Thirdly, Mbembe asked - inverting the second question - what does Obama mean for Africa? The continent, he said, has yet to fully grasp the significance of the candidate’s achievements thus far. (This is the subject of the Professor’s recent article in the Sunday Independent):

Obama is not running to be the first Luo president of Kenya, his late father’s country. Nor is he running as the African candidate for the US presidency. He is running as the American citizen he is – someone who understands the rawness of power politics in America, who wants to win, who will be pursuing first and foremost US interests in the continent and who is to a certain extent beholden to the way in which the US has traditionally defined those interests.


II - Tony Leon made a similar speech to the one he presented to the Cape Town Press Club in June (see full transcript here). His comments focused, among other things, on the strategic and military concerns of an America under Obama:

…he obviously has sensitivity toward and approval of, international collaboration and a detestation of the unilateralism and preemption of Georg W. Bush. But I think that while his involvement with Africa will certainly be more intense (to the extent that other foreign policy challenges allow it to be) it will by no means be uncritical nor will it amount to approval of democratic delinquencies or rights-negations which occur so often on our continent.

Leon noted that despite the antipathy toward President Bush, he has actually been more involved than previous US presidents when it comes to Africa, especially with regards to foreign aid, and more importantly, trade (e.g. the African Growth and Opportunity Act or AGOA):

Whether Obama or McCain ascend to the presidency, it is worth recording that the United States is still Africa’s largest trading partner. Our relationship with this hypo-power remains vexed. On the one hand anti-American sentiment, in the words of Dr. Greg Mills, “remains rife”. Much of this is attributable to the continent’s lack of ardour for George W. Bush and his general vision of pre-emption and the invasion of Iraq in particular. On the other hand, as Mills notes “the Bush administration arguably has been the most generous ever in Washington, in terms of policy toward, trade with and aid to Africa. On the diplomatic front, Bush has devoted more time to Africa than any of his predecessors.”

Undoubtedly this renewed Africa focus has been driven by twin imperatives: first, America’s growing energy needs: an estimated 25% of US oil imports will come from Africa by 2015, up from 15% in 2007. The second driver of policy has been Washington’s war on terror, one of whose consequences has been the establishment of the controversial Africom (US Military Command for Africa). These imperatives will remain, even though a “President Obama” will doubtless refashion and reshape them. Perhaps, crucially an Obama presidency, will allow Africa and America to re-engage with each other afresh and absent of the debilitating background noise which has drowned out so much of the positive underpinnings of this vital relationship.


III - Monica Stewart’s discussion revolved around the Manichean theme of what she termed “the politics of fear and loathing versus the politics of hope and change”. Barack Obama, she said, embodies the politics of hope and change and this resonates far beyond the boundaries of the United States.

On the question of Obama’s willingness to 'aim for the centre' and to jettison core liberal issues such as gun control and the abolition of the death penalty, Stewart conceded that he is a smart politician, but denied that he was cynical.

Repeating her mantra, she said that the politics of hope and change is hard in the climate of fear and loathing. “Its been stultifying; its dumbed down our political system. Everybody hates us!” she cried “In South Africa I’ve experienced a lot of loathing towards the United States.” Obama, she suggested, will remove a lot of that ill feeling.


IV - Steven Grootes opened by quoting, of all people, Halle Berry who once joked that “Being a little bit black in Hollywood is like being a little bit pregnant.” In this Grootes was saying that Barack Obama is not white and that’s significant (despite dubious suggestions from some quarters that he is not “black enough”). A victory for Barack Obama, Grootes added, would be a victory over the fear of difference. It is a victory over people not voting for you because you look different, and have a different past.

Grootes relayed how he had gotten to see Hillary Clinton during the Texas primary campaign. According to him, she was a competent and professional and capable woman. However, the next day when he heard Barack Obama speak, he thought that he had touched tomorrow. Grootes listens to political speeches for a living, but this was the first time he said, that he had taken a speech and put it on his iPod so he can listen to it again!


For an opinion on why Obama is veering away from the left and towards the middle, see the Economist, 'New and improved'

Mr Obama was always clear that he was running for the presidency of the United States, not the chairmanship of

The likes of Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis, on the left, and Barry Goldwater, on the right, may have won brownie points from their supporters for sticking to their principles. But they went down to calamitous defeats.

He is occupying the middle ground in order to reassure white voters that he shares their values. This is no airy-fairy liberal who is going to allow himself to be pushed around by Middle Eastern despots. This is a shrewd opportunist at work.


Thanks once again to the organisers for a wonderfully stimulating event. (Unfortunately, Howard Dean will not be coming to South Africa as I indicated in my earlier post on Obama.)


  1. Nice one, Dave. That was very interesting reading. I have a bad feeling that my unrequited love affair with Obama (he doesn't even know who I am!) is going to come to a slow, cynical end as he perpetuates the (frankly) unrealistically hegemonic and self-centered foreign policy of his country. But, maybe not. I have hope.

  2. Thanks David for leaving a comment in and leading me to a very interesting perspective.
    I would agree with Prof. Mbembe, "Obama is not running to be the first Luo president of Kenya, his late father’s country. ... who will be pursuing first and foremost US interests in the continent and who is to a certain extent beholden to the way in which the US has traditionally defined those interests." Which is what we should all expect.

    You have a good blog going. Good job!

  3. David,

    This may be off the tangent but I am sure your readers would like to have a look at this => Kenya radies for Obama tourist boom (