William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

Zuma and Obama tango to the Death March

The timing of United States President Barack Obama’s two-day state visit to South Africa was less than ideal. Overshadowing the political arena was a looming, distracting historical backdrop: former president Nelson Mandela’s faltering but determined struggle to live.

Both leaders were acutely aware that they had to avoid any perception of insensitivity to the prevailing national mood of gloom. Neither, however, wanted to forgo what political traction they could extract from the visit: Obama to establish an African legacy that until now has been virtually invisible, and President Jacob Zuma to maintain a feel-good momentum as the 2014 election approaches.

The prospect of Zuma sharing a podium with Obama was not one to gladden a South African heart. Could there be a more glaring study in contrasts? On the one side there is the urbane, articulate and cerebral Obama and on the other there is Zuma, who is none of those things.

In fact, the SA president acquitted himself with considerable aplomb. Zuma has an engaging demeanour and even those who rubbish his leadership must concede that it is difficult not to warm-up to the man.

Zuma applied this trait to good effect, with winningly fulsome praise of the US president’s anti-apartheid credentials, respect for Obama’s empathy with his “personal hero” Mandela, and in sketching flattering parallels between the two men. He enjoined Obama, somewhat incongruously, to have a “happy visit” to Robben Island where “Madiba and many freedom fighters” were imprisoned, modestly refraining to remind us that he was among those, having spent 10 years incarcerated there.

Beyond diplomatic niceties, however, neither man will feel particularly pleased by the visit. Obama, unlike the glory days of foreign aid largesse presided over by George W Bush, has a constrained budget and his scope for grand gestures was limited.

Zuma, for his part, will feel disappointed that most of the assistance that Obama is dispensing – in excess of $7-billion – will be continental in scope, benefiting SA only tangentially. His likely degree of chagrin can be discerned in the ambitious shape of his initial hopes.

At the start of the visit, Zuma set out a lavish wish list, much like a youngster covering all possible bases with Father Christmas. There was, he said, a whole range of “bankable projects” on the table.

Zuma fancied that Uncle Sam might be enticed to deliver infrastructural development, youth skills development, investment in the School Capacity and Innovation Programme, investment in primary education and teacher training, and investment in vocational training and the Further Education and Training colleges. Oh, and by the way Mr President, an extension of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), scheduled to expire in 2015, would also be nice.

Much of this was never going to happen, indicative of the civil servants involved in compiling the list being hopelessly out of touch with reality. Few donors are going to channel aid via state coffers, given this government’s reputation for corruption and incompetence. Fewer still will put money into state education, given that the SA government is already spending 5.3% of GDP on this – among the highest rates in the world – to produce paltry results.

Zuma got his wish with AGOA, but with nothing else. And since AGOA is another continent-wide benefit, it’s a bit like being gifted a dull board game that you can only play with your pals, instead of all the hot toys that you can play with on your own.

Finally, Zuma urged Obama, given the economic and financial challenges that are faced by the US and Europe, “to encourage our traditional supporters not to abandon their pledges to Africa”. The sting of Britain’s recent decision to end its R270-million of annual foreign aid to SA is clearly still smarting.

Ah well, there are always the Chinese to tap. They do believe in Father Christmas, don’t they?

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    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      To quote Whoopi Goldberg “I’ve been to Africa and I’m an American” (as quoted in “The Trouble With Africa” by Robert Calderisi.

      (P.S Why the new photo?)

    • WSM

      @ Beddy: previous one was 17 years old, a bit misleading.

    • http://southafricana.blogspot.com Dave Harris

      All international politicians that visited SA see President Zuma as a democratic leader respectful of his traditions and his governance of a rising young democracy pivotal to the African continent. You forgot to mention the Young African Leaders initiative designed to uplift African entrepreneurs currently marginalized in SA by our own private sector. Neither did you mention Obama’s ambitious initiative to assist in providing power to sub-Saharan Africa.

      One of the most important points in Obama’s speech was his candid admiration of the ANC whom he gave credit for launching his political career in the first place! The denigration of President Zuma and the ANC is why US politicians constantly steer clear of the DA and their supporters. This was glaring during his last visit.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      I am getting bored with the continual moans at Obama for not ending the war in Afghanistan. Obama did not start the war in Afghanistan, America did not even start the war in Afghanistan.

      The war in Afghanistan was started in the 19th century European colonial period by Russia to destabilise British India through Afghanistan (“The Great Game”). Russia was colonising both the European Middle East and the East in the Pacific. Almost immediately after India got independence the cold war started and continued in Afghanistan with Russia now versus America, both sides continuing to arm warlords.

      After the Cold War, Russia and the USA pulled out, leaving heavily armed opposing warlords behind, and the Taliban moved in. Osama Bin Ladin, just starting his jihads then, saw an opportunity and got the religious leader of the Taliban to swear an oath of loyalty to him, which oaths are as sacred among the hill tribes as they are among Mafia families in Italy – and a Third Great Game started.

    • Charlotte

      Correction: News cutting referred to above was taken from The Tatler (July 4, 2013) -not The Sunday Times.

    • Charlotte

      Distorting facts again? Twisting the truth again? – except that with Dave Harris, there are no ‘facts’ and there is no ‘truth’.

      From a report in The Tatler of Obama’s visit to UCT comes these exact words:
      ‘Mr Obama gave a rousing speech to a crammed Jameson Hall in which he referred to former President Nelson Mandela as an extraordinary leader who had shown that courage can change the world.
      Mr. Obama also slated African Leaders who live in wealth while their people languish in poverty – and vowed that America would not invest in strong men, but rather, in strong institutions.
      “Africa is rising … but not fast enough for the forgotten kids in the townships and the women who get raped.” Mr. Obama said.
      He placed his bets firmly on the young people of Africa and called on them to change the continent’s future, and spoke out against corrupt leaders.’

      Let no one confuse (as D.H. continually tries to do) the ideals and principles of Nelson Mandela with the practices of the Zuma-led ANC. They are as far apart from each other as it is possible to imagine.

    • ConCision

      Obama and Zuma
      Dance to a different beat
      Zuma sings offensive songs
      And has no need for a drummer

      Obama tangos to the music
      He moves elegantly with the flow
      Zuma dances to anyone’s tune
      As long as there’s plenty of dough