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Cape Town and the Obamas

The hullabaloo around the award of the Freedom of the City to the Obamas (now accepted) reminds me of that remarkable day in September 2006 when then senator Barack Obama addressed a packed meeting at the Centre for the Book, organised and hosted by the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) and the US Consulate General in Cape Town.

Obama had been snubbed on his African tour — prior to commencing his run for the presidency announced a few months later — by President Thabo Mbeki and I seem to call was eventually received by minister Jeff Radebe.

In Cape Town he got an enthusiastic welcome. A few things stand out about meeting him on that occasion, when he spoke to you one-on-one it was as if he was the only person in the world who matters. (Bill Clinton also has that gift.)

When the SAIIA committee offered him tea at 5 o’clock before the meeting started he looked puzzled: “Tea? No thank you, water would be fine.” And of course he posed for a photo with the committee members.


His address to the mainly young audience was magic and our first taste of his extraordinary rhetorical gifts. He was particularly impressive responding to the many questions.