For the last three weeks, South Africa has been buzzing about an upcoming visit to Africa by President Obama. In only his second official trip to the continent, Obama will visit Senegal, South Africa and then Tanzania. The visit comes at a bad time, with the precarious status of Nelson Mandela’s health overshadowing the visit. It has also been met with anger, flag burning, and protests outside of parliament from many South Africans. Despite this, President Obama’s visit to South Africa is symbolic and historic. It was the ANC’s opposition movement against the apartheid government that brought Obama into the political sphere—it was the first cause he ever stood up for. South Africa has grown as a great US ally in Africa, but more so the idea of a black US president, honoring former black South African president Mandela, would have 20 years ago been an obscene thought. This visit was important for the future of American/South African relations, so naturally, I found a way in.
After a few emails, I was put on the volunteer list to see President Obama’s speech. He spoke at Jameson Hall on the campus of the University of Cape Town (UCT), where Bobby Kennedy had once delivered another famous speech. All I had to do was stand outside for five hours and make sure that people stood in the right lines, which was easy enough. Dressed to the nines, everyone waited in the cold and wind for hours to see the speech.
Squeezing my way to the front of the standing area, I had a perfect view, with the president standing at his podium a mere 20 feet away. The venue was small and intimate, and felt appropriate for such a speech. He first spoke about Nelson Mandela’s influence, on the people of South Africa and more so global citizens. He thanked the country for standing up for human rights and overcoming a difficult past. Then, he spoke to the students, saying that this struggle would continue when Mandela and himself were gone.
The meat of the speech was the unveiling of a new $7 billion energy initiative throughout Africa. While the specifics were hazy and I remain skeptical, it’s an awesome goal to have in mind. He seemed inspired by Mandela and the work done throughout South Africa, but referred more generally to the African continent for most of the speech.
I had never seen a president speak in person before and it was very cool. He is very charismatic and engaging. It was also interesting, because when he or anyone else speaks about domestic politics, it is always partisan. While international affairs are obviously partisan as well, he continuously spoke of what America stands for, and how South African can fit into that vision. I liked that, because I was able to forget about domestic politics for a while and realize that as Americans we do all have the same goals, of peace, stability, and democracy.
With a better idea of the history and struggles of South Africa, I was able to more fully appreciate President Obama’s speech. I don’t think that you need to like President Obama, or his policies, or vote for him, to recognize the value of such a speech. And, as noted in his speech: “The world is grateful for the heroes of Robben Island, who remind us that no shackles or cells can match the strength of the human spirit.”