Despite President Obama’s powerful rhetoric on US-Africa relations during his 2008 campaign, many in Africa watched his first term come and go with great disappointment. Now, after four years of what they deemed failed policies, he seems poised to meet expectations. Last month, Obama gave an address at the University of Cape Town, the flagship speech of a weeklong tour of Africa. I had the privilegee of attending the speech, which highlighted Obama’s vision for US-Africa engagement and introduced a new initiative to help power the African continent. Most significantly, the address marked a shift for the US on Africa policy – an area that, until now, has disappointed many.
After beginning his first term as a superstar in Africa, Obama has fallen under criticism for his failure to seriously engage with the continent. As such, his speech came in the middle of a highly anticipated and criticized trip, which included visits to Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania. Some lamented the President’s visit for being long overdue, while others protested the countries on the itinerary. During his visit, protestors gathered in Soweto, South Africa, the hometown of Nelson Mandela and a place that once cheered Obama’s election. With the tour being deemed a failure before it even began, the President faced immense pressure to deliver in his first major Africa speech since 2009.
American engagement with Africa has been heavily criticized over the last several years, as it has been increasingly overshadowed by Chinese involvement. This trip was Obama’s second to Sub-Saharan Africa since taking office, with his previous trip to Ghana only totaling 21 hours. In comparison, Chinese president Xi Jinping has already visited three African nations since taking office on March 14, and has expressed his intent to visit the continent frequently. Over the past decade, China has outpaced the US in trade with Africa, passing the US as the continent’s number one trading partner in 2009. China focuses on large infrastructure projects for African governments as kickbacks for natural resource deals, and employs a “no strings attached” approach with respect to governance and human rights. In countries like Sudan and Zimbabwe, where the US has halted trade because of human rights abuses, China continues to prop up corrupt regimes and has reaped the economic benefits.
While African leaders prefer the less-intrusive Chinese model, Obama spared few words in defending America’s approach. He tackled concerns with US strategy in Africa head-on, defending American engagement with African nations and challenging the myth of democracy as a Western import. The truth, Obama argued, is that democracy is the only system that actually gives power to the African people. He went on to remark that those who say otherwise are usually the ones selling away their country’s resources to overseas powers, with an obvious tip of his hat to Chinese policies in the region. Africa is rising, Obama remarked, but that its growth is reliant on strong institutions and good governance.
However, even with a powerful defense of democracy and human rights, few expected Obama’s speech to break free from the current American narrative of foreign aid and humanitarian assistance. Up until this point, the US has failed to emulate China’s appealing strategy of focusing on infrastructure, rather than aid. To be truly effective, the US needs to be innovative and invest in long-term solutions for Africa’s growth.
To this end, Obama announced a new initiative, Power Africa, which seeks to double access to power in Sub-Saharan Africa. The White House notes that more than two-thirds of the population of Sub-Saharan African lack access to electricity, including 85% of those in rural areas. Obama pledged $7 billion in government resources and another $9 billion from private sector partners. Over the next few years, Power Africa will begin to develop new sources of energy and expand the reach of current sources of electricity. While the project is a huge undertaking, it marks a step in the right direction for American development on the continent. Rather than pouring more money into aid, Obama pledged to spend on the infrastructure that many Africans need most. The initiative comes as both a refreshing and innovative change, and something that could shift the perceptions of those abroad on Obama’s commitment to the continent.
But possibly the greatest aspect of Obama’s speech was the narrative woven into it—a speech about the promise and capacity of Africans to determine their own fate, given from a location full of symbolism not just for South Africans, but for Americans as well. Obama noted that forty-seven years prior, Bobby Kennedy gave his famous “ripple of hope” speech in the same auditorium at UCT. At a time when Nelson Mandela was still in jail and the civil rights battle was raging in the US, Kennedy spoke of the smallest acts, the “ripples of hope,” that could combine to topple the mightiest of oppressors. In his speech, Obama hit home the importance of the parallel:
“It would have seemed inconceivable to people at that time that less than 50 years later, an African-American president might address an integrated audience at South Africa’s oldest university, and that this same university would have conferred an honorary degree to a president, Nelson Mandela. It would have seemed impossible.”
The words were powerful and effective. But while we cannot forget the incredible triumph of toppling apartheid, we should also focus on the road ahead in ensuring the prosperity of all African nations and their people. It will take much more than a well-crafted speech to truly show the President’s commitment to the continent. Obama’s speech showed the types of building blocks that could power a successful US strategy in the region, but only if followed by a continued commitment. As I talked to the South Africans around me after the president’s remarks ended, they all showed a kind of reserved hope for US engagement. For, as much respect and admiration they had for our president, they were no strangers to empty promises.