Africa: Democracy, Transparency Are Not 'Western Exports' - Obama

President Barack Obama.
1 July 2013

An excerpt from President Obama's speech at the University of Cape Town:

[H]istory tells us that true progress is only possible where governments exist to serve their people, and not the other way around.

If anyone wants to see the difference between freedom and tyranny, let them come here, to South Africa. Here, citizens braved bullets and beatings to claim that most basic right: the ability to be free, to determine your own fate, in your own land. And Madiba's example extended far beyond that victory. Now, I mentioned yesterday at the town hall -- like America's first President, George Washington, he understood that democracy can only endure when it's bigger than just one person. So his willingness to leave power was as profound as his ability to claim power.

The good news is that this example is getting attention across the continent. We see it in free and fair elections from Ghana to Zambia.

We hear it in the voices of civil society. I was in Senegal and met with some civil society groups, including a group called Y'en Marre, which meant "fed up", that helped to defend the will of the people after elections in Senegal. We recognize it in places like Tanzania, where text messages connect citizens to their representatives. And we strengthen it when organizations stand up for democratic principles, like ECOWAS did in Cote d'Ivoire.

But this work is not complete -- we all know that. Not in those countries where leaders enrich themselves with impunity; not in communities where you can't start a business, or go to school, or get a house without paying a bribe to somebody. These things have to change.

And they have to chance not just because such corruption is immoral, but it's also a matter of self-interest and economics. Governments that respect the rights of their citizens and abide by the rule of law do better, grow faster, draw more investment than those who don't. That's just a fact.

Just look at your neighbor, Zimbabwe, where the promise of liberation gave way to the corruption of power and then the collapse of the economy. Now, after the leaders of this region -- led by South Africa -- brokered an end to what has been a long-running crisis, Zimbabweans have a new constitution, the economy is beginning to recover. So there is an opportunity to move forward -- but only if there is an election that is free, and fair, and peaceful, so that Zimbabweans can determine their future without fear of intimidation and retribution. And after elections, there must be respect for the universal rights upon which democracy depends.

These are things that America stands for -- not perfectly -- but that's what we stand for, and that's what my administration stands for. We don't tell people who their leaders should be, but we do stand up with those who support the principles that lead to a better life.

And that's why we're interested in investing not in strongmen, but in strong institutions: independent judiciaries that can enforce the rule of law -- honest police forces that can protect the peoples' interests instead of their own; an open government that can bring transparency and accountability. And, yes, that's why we stand up for civil society -- for journalists and NGOs, and community organizers and activists -- who give people a voice. And that's why we support societies that empower women -- because no country will reach its potential unless it draws on the talents of our wives and our mothers, and our sisters and our daughters.

Women's rights

Just to editorialize here for a second, because my father's home country of Kenya -- like much of Africa -- you see women doing work and not getting respect. I tell you, you can measure how well a country does by how it treats its women. And all across this continent, and all around the world, we've got more work to do on that front. We've got some sisters saying, "Amen."

Meddlesome Americans?

Now, I know that there are some in Africa who hear me say these things -- who see America's support for these values -- and say that's intrusive. Why are you meddling? I know there are those who argue that ideas like democracy and transparency are somehow Western exports. I disagree.

Those in power who make those arguments are usually trying to distract people from their own abuses. Sometimes, they are the same people who behind closed doors are willing to sell out their own country's resource to foreign interests, just so long as they get a cut. I'm just telling the truth.

Now ultimately, I believe that Africans should make up their own minds about what serves African interests. We trust your judgment, the judgment of ordinary people. We believe that when you control your destiny, if you've got a handle on your governments, then governments will promote freedom and opportunity, because that will serve you.

And it shouldn't just be America that stands up for democracy -- it should be Africans as well. So here in South Africa, your democratic story has inspired the world. And through the power of your example, and through your position in organizations like SADC and the African Union, you can be a voice for the human progress that you've written into your own Constitution. You shouldn't assume that that's unique to South Africa. People have aspirations like that everywhere.

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