In a way, Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille’s decision to award US president Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama the Freedom of the City (Cape Town’s highest honor), sort of makes sense, if you stretch your imagination. The thinking behind it is captured in that iconic photo from 2009 of President Obama bending over in the Oval Office to allow five-year-old Jacob Philadelphia to touch his hair. The story goes that little Jacob wanted to know if the president’s hair felt like his own and Obama obliged by lowering his head for the five-year-old to check for himself. “Yes, it does feel the same,” Jacob is reported to have said. He left the White House that day believing, like millions of other black American kids, perhaps for the first time ever, that he could realistically one day become president because someone like him had beaten the odds and made it there.
When De Lille announced the award last year, she said Cape Town (and the rest of South Africa) was on a journey from a racially exclusionary past to a future of equality and justice for all. She said the Obamas, for their success despite the prejudicial odds, are symbolic of the hope that this kind of future is possible.
But instead of uniting Cape Town, the award has divided it, with parts of the Muslim community saying president Obama is unworthy of an award whose previous recipients include former president Nelson Mandela and archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu. They’ve taken umbrage at bestowing the honor to someone who they say has continued the American tradition of handling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with American interests, not justice, in mind. They also cite the civilian casualties and destabilizing effects of the Obama administration’s use of drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen as another reason why Obama did not deserve the accolade.
It’s no surprise then that plans are afoot to organize protests when the Obamas arrives in South Africa on Saturday as part of their three-nation whistle-stop tour of Africa (his trip starts with a 2-day visit to Senegal, then on to South Africa before he ends the visit in Tanzania on Monday and Tuesday).
In South Africa, this could be a quite different reception from when Obama first visited there in 2006 as a young Senator.
South Africa’s Muslim community is not alone in opposing attempts to award accolades to Obama. Students and staff at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), where Obama is scheduled to hold an interactive town hall with “young African leaders”, are resisting the university’s bid to award him an honorary law doctorate. They say Obama, through America’s foreign policy, supports supremacist ideals and perpetuates the kind of dominance of one group by another that South Africans bled and died to end. To them, the university awarding him an honorary doctorate is offensive. Students at the nearby University of the Witwaterstand have voiced solidarity with their peers at UJ.
The African National Congress, the majority party in Parliament, also brushed off a request by Lindiwe Mazibuko, the parliamentary leader of De Lille’s party, the Democratic Alliance, to call Parliament from its mid-year recess to allow Obama to address a joint sitting of both Houses. The rebuff reflects in part the strong opposition to American foreign policy from within the ANC’s ranks and those of its alliance partners, particularly the influential Congress of South African Trade Unions. The trade union federation recently issued an appeal for all workers and South Africans to join the protests during Obama’s visit to demand a new foreign policy based on justice.
This change in sentiment is a marked turn from how Obama was viewed when he was first elected. Like Jacob Philadelphia, many South Africans imagined that Obama’s presidency, because of his race and African ancestry, signalled the end of an era of inequality and injustice. They thought that more than any other American president before him, Obama would be the one to change a global dynamic where American lives are considered the most valuable of all and American interests supersede others, no matter the cost.
Instead Obama has carried on from where his predecessors left off, leaving many of South Africans asking, as some black Americans are beginning to do with regard to their own struggle for equal opportunities, where is this change Obama promised?
It was under Obama’s administration last year that the United States, along with Canada and Israel, stood as the only real global power broker to oppose Palestine’s application for nonmember-observer status at the UN when an overwhelming majority of other countries supported it. Although not entirely his doing, it was under Obama’s watch that the US Congress struck back at Unesco for a majority-vote decision to accept Palestine as a full member by withholding funding, severely limiting the organization’s ability to promote democracy, gender equality and freedom of expression.
The Obama administration also closely follows Israel’s lead in withholding funds to strong-arm Palestine into agreeing to Israel’s terms in the conflict.
Despite years of promises, the Obama administration has done precious little to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp where 46 of the current inmates are being held indefinitely, without trial or court-admissible evidence of wrongdoing, under the shifting terms of the United States war on terror. All that the medical ethics crisis triggered by the inmates’ recent hunger strike has done is usher in a new wave of promises from Obama that he will redouble his efforts to close the camp.
Then there are the drone strikes, particularly the so-called “signature strikes”, that, beyond their ambiguous scope and questionable legality, regularly kill civilians. Obama says that these civilian deaths will haunt him and others in chain of command for the rest of their lives. But the families and loved ones of civilians killed by drones, I suspect, likely experience much greater distress and carry deeper, more permanent scars than a drone jockey sitting in Nevada or New Mexico, or a busy president bustling about Washington DC and the world.
The civilian deaths and terror caused by drone strikes also sow the kind of virulent hatred of the United States that the war on terror purports to root out, as Yemini writer Farea Al-Muslimi explained to a senate hearing in April this year. “What radicals had previously failed to achieve in my village,” he said, “one drone strike accomplished in an instant: there is now an intense anger and growing hatred of America.”
Many South Africans care about these issues because when this country was subjected to over half a decade of state-sponsored oppression and injustice in the form of apartheid and centuries of colonialism, global powers equivocated while others actively supported the apartheid government.
Like black America, we’ve realized that a change in figurehead to someone who looks like he might better understand our struggles does not equate to a substantive change for the better. This is why as Americans grapple with how to effect systemic justice and equality within their nation’s borders, so too must they do a better job of holding their representatives to account for their nation’s actions abroad.