Obama Speaks to Young African Leaders amidst Protests in Soweto

By Ntokozo Sindane    29-Jun-2013 20:23 UTC+02:00
Protesters outside the University of Johannesburg, Soweto Campus got involved in a heated altercation with the police who ended up using rubber bullets to disperse the crowd. – image - www.guardian.co.uk

Protesters outside the University of Johannesburg, Soweto Campus got involved in a heated altercation with the police who ended up using rubber bullets to disperse the crowd. – image – www.guardian.co.uk

US President Barack Obama is currently on the South African leg of his African tour. The presidential, hi-tech private jet, Air Force One, landed at the Waterkloof Air Force Base in Pretoria on Friday night. On Saturday morning, President Obama held talks with South African President Jacob Zuma after which the two presidents were the guests of honor at a press conference.

President Obama then left the Union Buildings in Pretoria and headed to Soweto in Johannesburg to address young African leaders. While Obama spoke at the University of Johannesburg, Soweto campus, his wife Michelle was engaged in a similar forum with young people not too far in Newtown.

Obama greeted the crowd: “Yebo Mzansi.” He was met with thunderous applause and cheers as he headed to the podium. As the cheers continued, he shouted: “Yeah, I’m excited too.” He was glad for the platform to meet and talk to young people. This format is the norm in the United States.

The US president started by acknowledging the importance of Soweto, the place where Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela once lived. He reminisced about visiting the Hector Peterson Memorial on his last trip to South Africa while he was still a senator. “I am honored to return to Soweto as the president of the United States of America.

President Obama invited young Africans to apply to the Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders and take advantage of the diverse skills and education program. He told his audience that they could rely on a network of both Africans and Americans for support. Obama added with conviction: “I believe in you.”

One of the questions that were posed to the American president was regarding AGOA, the African Growth and Opportunities Act which expires in 2015. This trade arrangement makes it possible for African suppliers to export goods to the US at little cost to the suppliers allowing them to make more income from their produce. Obama confirmed the expiration of the agreement in 2015 but said: “It is my hope that we get it renewed.” For President Zuma, AGOA is high on the agenda during Obama’s visit.

President Obama offered an attractive alternative that would bring about economic growth in Africa. President Obama explained that at present, it is much easier for an African farmer to sell his produce in Europe or America than it is to trade with his own neighbors on the African continent. Obama would like to see this change.

Speaking via satellite from Kenya, young leaders in Nairobi had a question for Obama but more than anything they wanted to know why he had not made Kenya a part of his travel itinerary. He candidly replied that he had already visited Kenya on several occasions and he is “trying to spread the wealth a bit”. Obama smiled and said that he still had 3 years and 7 months left in office and if he didn’t keep his promise between now and the end of his term, Kenya could hold him at fault.

President Obama reiterated that the US is not threatened by China’s extensive involvement in Africa. In fact, he would like to see other countries such as Brazil and India join China and the US in helping to bring about economic empowerment and skills development in Africa.

Obama spoke about the challenges associated with building relationships with African countries that have not fully embraced democracy in the manner that South Africa has. He praised South Africa saying that it “has been a great model” for democracy and equality.

The talk was well-organized and the crowd listened attentively especially when President Obama spoke about “the so-called war on terror”. He emphasized that terrorism is not just an American problem; it is an international problem. He went as far as to say that more Africans are affected by terrorism than Americans, making examples that when a bomb goes off in an American establishment within an African country, a lot of Africans are also killed.

Admittedly, sometimes a country has to adopt a military approach in order to protect itself against terrorists but President Obama prefers a democratic solution when dealing with terrorism. He feels that the focus should be on the root causes of terrorism and attempting to eradicate poverty and poor governance. He also answered questions about education and the US environmental policy which prioritizes climate change.

A short while before President Obama arrived at the venue in Soweto; the police had to disperse a crowd of unruly protesters. Media reports say that the police used rubber bullets to end the altercation. Protesters have been at it since Obama arrived on Friday and some burnt US flags in front of the Union Buildings.

The American president did not visit ailing former President Nelson Mandela in hospital but did meet privately with some family members and spoke to Mandela’s wife Graca on the telephone. President Obama will conclude his South African visit in Cape Town tomorrow.

The latest reports from the media outside the Pretoria Medi-Clinic Heart Hospital say that though Obama did not visit the elderly leader, Mandela had responded by opening his eyes and a hint of a smile when he was told that Obama would be in Africa. The presidency confirmed that Nelson Mandela is still critical but Zuma is hopeful that he will be leaving the hospital soon.

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