A Subdued South Africa Awaits Obama

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A woman walks past a mural portraying former South African President Nelson Mandela in downtown Johannesburg, on June 11, 2013.

President Obama arrives in South Africa today at an extraordinary moment in this remarkable nation’s history. The country’s first black president, Nelson Mandela, is in critical condition in hospital and South Africans are preparing themselves for life after the man who helped transform their country.South Africa would be celebrating the arrival of the first African-American president were it not for the fragile health of the living symbol of the country’s triumph over whites-only rule. Mandela, who is turning 95 on July 18th, is spending his 21st day in hospital. Originally, he was being treated for a lung infection — he is vulnerable to respiratory problems and contracted tuberculosis after 27 years in prison, where he worked in a limestone quarry — but his condition has deteriorated and he is reported to be on life support.

Obama’s trip was supposed to be upbeat, emphasizing economic growth and democratic governance. “We, frankly, have heard a high demand signal from the U.S. private sector for us to play an active role,” said U.S. national security advisor Ben Rhodes earlier this month on a conference call with reporters. Democracy is important, said Rhodes, “because when you have the assurance that comes with the rule of law, it is easier for companies to invest.” The President has spent the first days of his sub-Saharan tour in Senegal, a French-speaking, Muslim-majority democracy, meeting with the Senegal’s president and making a stop at Goree Island, a former slave trading hub. In South Africa, he is scheduled to host a town hall meeting with youth leaders in Soweto, Johannesburg, and visit Robben Island, the former prison where Mandela was held, before going to Tanzania, the last leg of his trip.

Obama is not expected to announce any major new Africa-related government initiatives on the trip. “What Obama is trying to do is shift the relationship so the U.S. government doesn’t play this assistance role, but a facilitating role that gets the private sector engaged,” says Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. Cooke says Obama must show that the United States is “willing to play in the space.”

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There is a risk that message will get lost. “It is inauspicious that Obama is coming to South Africa when the backdrop is gloomy,” says Mzukisi Qobo, a senior lecturer of politics at the University of Pretoria. Still, Qobo says, these trips are significant because of their symbolism — and you can’t get much more symbolic than a meeting between the first black presidents of both the United States and South Africa. “Though our struggles are not the same, they are similar,” says Fhulufhelo Mutetisi, a 35-year-old pastor at the Rivers of Life church in Pretoria, standing outside of the hospital where Mandela is being treated Thursday afternoon. “Africans weren’t recognized as people who could lead,” says Mutetisi. “It’s a celebration to have a black president.”

Mandela has been lifelong inspiration to Obama, who called him “a personal hero,” at a news conference in Dakar on June 27. “My first act of political activism was when I was at Occidental College,” Obama said. “I got involved in the anti-apartheid movement, back in 1979-80 because I was inspired by what was taking place in South Africa.” In 2005, Mandela and Obama met in Washington, D.C., and have talked occasionally since then. “There are moments when the kindness, and generosity, and wisdom of the man shines through,” writes Obama in the foreword to Conversations With Myself, a collection of Mandela’s personal notes published in 2010. “Those are the moments when I am reminded that underneath the history that has been made, there is a human being who chose hope over fear — progress over the prisons of the past.”

Obama had loose plans to see Mandela, but that visit now appears to be off. Instead, he will join millions of South Africans in waiting for news about the former president.

Lolo Kekana, a 38-year-old City of Tshwane employee, is singing along to old struggle songs outside Mandela’s hospital. Kekana says the only thing worth focussing on now is Mandela, and Obama would be wise to do the same. “It sends a message,” she says, “not only to the U.S., but to the world, that we all take Mandela as our father.”

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