by Shabtai Gold
US President Barack Obama was met Saturday with songs, cheers and laughter from young South Africans at a university in the Soweto area of Johannesburg.
Before he entered the room, the crowd sang songs from the struggle against apartheid and burst into a lively round of Shosholoza, an old miners song from southern Africa with a call and response format that became more lively with each chorus.
As he appeared, Obama shouted out, “Yebo Mzanzi!” or “Yes, South Africa!” to jubilation from the crowd.
The president used the town-hall-style meeting, which was hooked up via video link to several other African nations, to encourage young people to innovate and act on their imaginations.
While Nelson Mandela, the ailing anti-apartheid leader who Obama said was a personal hero and “one of the greatest people in history,” was still in hospital in critical condition, his spirit was felt in the room.
“Building the future you see, realizing the vision you have not only for your own country but for the world – it will not be easy,” Obama told the hundreds of young people in attendance at the University of Johannesburg’s Soweto campus.
“But as you go forward, think of the man who is in our prayers today. Think of 27 years in prison. Think of the hardship and struggles and being away from family and friends,” Obama said, referring to Mandela’s time in jail for opposing white minority rule.
Obama was quick to stress the importance of education, as Mandela had always done, saying it was the “best investment” any country could make in its youth.
Or, indeed, for its politicians. “I don’t want to reinforce for the American press here that Africa is just one big piece of land on the map,” Obama, a Democrat, said in an apparent reference to widely reported claims that former US Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin believed Africa was a country, not a continent.
He was met by loud cheers from the crowd and laughter from his travelling press corps.
The questions he received were often tough, focussing on trade, the environment, women’s rights and even a promise he made to travel to Kenya, his father’s home, during his presidency.
“I’m going to be president for another three and a half years,” he said when asked via a video link from Nairobi why he had not visited the country. “You learn as president that people not only want you to fulfil your promises but want you to fulfil your promises yesterday.”
But Obama admitted that the International Criminal Court warrant out for that country’s new president and vice president had influenced his decision.
“I did not think it was an optimal time for me to visit,” he said but pledged he would still make a trip to Kenya before his time in office ends, which would be 2017.
For many in the crowd, however, the key concerns they had were jobs and economic opportunities. They wanted clear words from the president that he envisioned an economic partnership between the United States and Africa.
“Everywhere I go in Africa, people want to break out of the dependency trap,” Obama said.
“What we need is an Africa that is building, manufacturing, creating value, inventing and then sending those products around the world and receiving products in return under fair terms of trade,” the president said. “If we do that, there is no reason Africa cannot succeed.”
Obama insisted the US was not interested in global domination, a concern often felt strongest in countries once subjected to colonial rule, which milked resources while oppressing their people.
“I was elected to end the wars,” he said, adding that he regularly visits young US soldiers who have been gravely injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“This idea that we want to get more involved militarily around the world is not true,” he said.
Obama said the US would rather be “selling iPads and planes” rather than using its military abroad, drawing applause from the crowd, many of whom snapped photos of the president and his large entourage on their smartphones and tablets. – dpa