30 June 2013

Africa: A Second Chance for Obama to Engage

Photo: Pete Souza/White House
President Obama answers questions at a Young African Leaders Initiative town hall meeting in Soweto.

guest column

Atlanta — Why did it take four-and-a-half years after taking office for President Barack Obama to make a visit of more than 24 hours to sub-Saharan Africa?

The answer, I think, is that Africa remains on the periphery of both public attention and policy considerations – as it has for decades. President Obama's agenda is filled with pressing problems, and there is little political cost associated with keeping African issues on the sidelines. In fact, as the first African American president, he and his staff may have perceived a liability in being too closely associated with Africa.

There is nothing new about Africa being on the margins of U.S. consciousness. In 1977, Vice-President Walter Mondale and South African Prime Minister John Vorster met in Vienna, Austria for two days of high-level talks.

For the first time in the history of U.S-South African relations, the message to the South African leadership was this: from that moment, American policy towards South Africa would be based on advancing the goal of one person, one vote. When Mondale informed Vorster about the new policy, the South African delegation's reaction was deeply negative. But at the same time, we knew they were not pessimistic about their prospects of holding onto white power and privilege.

Among themselves, they agreed that there was no need to worry. A tough stance that would isolate South Africa from U.S. economic engagement did not enjoy the support of American business – or of the American people.

Indeed, it would be nearly another decade before a growing divestment movement in the United States – against the backdrop of increasing resistance within South Africa – pushed the U.S. Congress to adopt comprehensive sanctions against South Africa.

I was Secretary of State Cyrus Vance's Africa specialist on the Policy Planning Staff at the time of the Vienna meeting. Much has changed in Africa and in South Africa in the 36 years since then. And an African American president's tour of Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania is too rich in symbolism - from the slave portals of Gore Island to a post-apartheid South Africa – to be minimized in any way.

Yet it is still possible to see vestiges of Vorster's view of Africa as a continent on the periphery of American geo-political and economic policy equations. And I would have to concede that most Americans, in virtually every sector of our national life, exhibit little interest in Africa's 55 nations.

It has been a loss both to Africa and the United States that, until now, this president may have felt less free than Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to embrace Africa – much as overtures to China required a Republican president, Richard Nixon – who was less vulnerable to charges of being soft on communism.

As the former vice chair of the board of the Corporate Council on Africa and chair of its U.S.-South Africa Business Council, I can attest to the enormous hope Africans had for an Obama presidency. When I wore my Obama t-shirt with the message 'YES WE CAN' in Johannesburg just after the 2008 election, I was met with envy – for my shirt – and pride – in my new president – from a broad range of South Africans.

In the years since, among Africans and among Americans who care about Africa, there has been deep disappointment, perhaps born of unrealistic expectations.

Too many Americans still think of Africa as a continent of poverty and primitivism, of wars and corruption. What a shame that a president so gifted by circumstance of geneology and history – and by an ability to communicate – has done so little to change those perceptions.

President Obama still has time to set us on a new course with Africa.

His speech Sunday night at the University of Cape Town indicated that he could. He announced major new investments in health and education and in essential infrastructure, such as power. He signaled that the American private sector will be encouraged to see Africa as a place for mutual economic benefit, rather than as primarily a recipient of aid and an object of military interventions.

More broadly, he promised a new era in U.S. relations with Africa. Africans and friends of Africa will be watching closely to see how those promises are kept.

Haskell Ward is senior vice president of the Black Rhino Group.

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