In search of hope, inspiration and leadership South Africans look to Obama – But is this misdirected?
South Africans came out in their numbers on July 17 to attend the annual Mandela Lecture.
It was a beautiful sunny day and it was indeed good to see about 15 000 South Africans from all walks, races, age groups –and including business, political, civil society, faith-based and traditional leaders — gathered together.
The atmosphere was positive and for a moment the recent negative headlines of racial tensions over land expropriation, infighting of the big political parties and many reports of women abuse seemed not to exist in this country.
People were generally friendly and happy to give their opinions on why there were there. The general theme that came through from the number of people I spoke to was that they were looking to be inspired and to hear what former US president Barack Obama had to say about moving the Mandela legacy forward.
It was interesting to note that many people didn’t quite care to analyse Obama’s legacy as president of the United States in relation to advancing Africa’s development. To them he was Obama, the first black man to be president of the most powerful nation, something equivalent to what Mandela did in South Africa.
Moments to celebrate
In the words of Graca Machel he represented the “best of Africa” and that’s how people wanted to view him that day – and I soon made peace that at times, despite the brokenness of our current state, we must find moments to celebrate, forget the problems and just celebrate.
In that spirit of joy South Africans gave President Ramaphosa a standing ovation each time he was introduced – the opposite to what had happened the last time Obama was in South Africa at the funeral of Mandela when people booed the then president, Jacob Zuma.
This bubble was however burst the very next day when I found myself in conversation with Dr Julius Garvey, the son of Marcus Garvey, who founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in 1914, a man who influenced America’s civil rights leaders like Malcom X, Martin Luther Jnr as well as Africa’s liberation movement leaders like Kwame Nkurumah – who in honour of him and the work he did with UNIA, named the national shipping line of Ghana the Black Star Line and the black star at the centre of Ghana’s flag was inspired by him.
Dr Julius Garvey was in South Africa on his way to Namibia where a street in Windhoek was being named after his father.
He unpacked the deep challenges of the economic systems of the world that have entrapped Africa and speaking in an interview with SAFM spoke of how Obama was captured by this, and as a result could not effect change to the economic power dynamics of the current capitalist system.
He said John F Kennedy was the only president who actually tried to change these dynamics – but sadly he was assassinated, like many African leaders who wanted to reform economic dynamics.
Today, after more than two decades of our democracy the scales are beginning to come off eyes – many people now understand that the problem was not just the colour of the skin, but it was a fight for control of the resources, the land and means of production – the economy.
And while we had celebrated our leaders as liberators – many are beginning to understand that there was no true liberation, it was just political.
This should make South Africans pause and reflect – is there a possibility that the excitement over Barrack Obama is perhaps a misdirected zeal?
Could it be that he was just a talented African placed over an untransformed economic system to sidetrack Africans from seeking the true liberation of Africa – i.e. economic liberation?
This happened to South Africa when some of policies were not scrutinised because the obsession with the personality of Mandela blinded South Africans to the many unintended consequences of decisions made at the dawn of democracy.
There is no longer any doubt that South Africa is key to the economic transformation agenda of the continent – many companies seeking to do business in the continent choose to base themselves here.
The change in world politics – with looming trade wars between world powers e.g. US – China, Canada; Brexit and US withdrawal from signed agreements such as the Iraq deal and climate change are just indicators that old relationships are perhaps not working anymore and therefore everyone will be looking for new partners – and we see how Africa has now become a priority.
Responsibility to interrogate
This places a big responsibility on South Africans to look beyond the surface and not allow the yearning for change or new leadership cloud the ability to interrogate Obama’s beautifully-crafted speeches because they will impact also on the rest of the continent.
Obama and his family will always remain an inspiration to Africans because of their holding the most powerful position in the world – but even this must never blind Africa to the reality that the unjust economic system remains strongly in place, making the rich richer – and the poor poorer.
There is an urgent need to address this – the results of this injustice is evident in the violence, hatred and gloom over many people in the nation.
For the light of the country and continent to shine, and her healing to spring forth speedily, we cannot avoid the subject of justice.
Isaiah 58:6-7 — This is the kind of fasting God wants: – to free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people.
Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless…
Until economies of the world are ordered to place the lives of people above profits – the colour of the skin of those in charge will do very little to alleviate the suffering of most of those who are poor, who happen to be Africans.