Americans are consistently concerned about their elected representatives becoming too Washington-centric. The bubble of Washington’s self-important political culture is alluring.
Leaving Washington and considering it from other vantages is always revealing. Whether viewing it from elsewhere in the United States, or from another country—as I am now, from Cape Town, South Africa—one always has a different perspective on Washington than when in it.
Washington, D.C., is a self evidently important global focal point. There are many cities in the world where momentous decisions are made that profoundly impact others, especially those living outside that city’s perimeters and indeed beyond that country’s borders. Washington and Beijing are arguably the two most powerful cities in the world at present, with the impact and influence of decisions made in these cities and then implemented beyond them being breathtaking.
On this visit to South Africa, I am mostly struck by how esoteric and inward-looking much of what is happening in Washington appears when one is well beyond “the Beltway”, the famous highway that encircles Washington. Certainly, these impressions occur too when in Washington itself. Indeed, one can then be consumed with dismay and frustration at the small-minded posturing and pettiness of much so-called debate there nowadays. As I sit in Cape Town, I am taken by the extent of the seeming triviality and purposelessness of so much of the political machinations in Washington. The antics and contortions of politicians there suggest they have lost the big picture. Their inability to address the U.S.’s challenges of the day has greatly damaged perceptions of the United States.
President Barack Obama’s recent visit to South Africa is one prism through which to view perceptions of the United States. I have intentionally asked as many local people as possible about how they viewed the president’s visit. Reactions ranged from great enthusiasm and appreciation to utter indifference and dismissal. There were of course also boisterous demonstrations against Obama’s presence from local Moslems appalled at targeted drone killings, as well as by those supporting the Palestinian cause and protesting U.S. bias toward Israel in the Middle East.
A key factor on President Obama’s visit to South Africa was the hospitalization in Pretoria of an elderly Nelson Mandela. Concern over Mandela’s health pervaded Obama’s visit. Obama recognized people’s distracted attention by mentioning Mandela at every opportunity throughout his visit and acknowledging Mandela’s profound influence on himself. Most importantly, Obama gained enormous goodwill and personal credit by backing away from possibly seeing the ailing Mandela, instead meeting privately with family members. South Africans approved wholeheartedly of this sensitivity by Obama.
Many to whom I have spoken were glad President Obama had taken the trouble to come. For those following the visit more closely, Obama’s public speeches at the University of Johannesburg ‘s Soweto branch and the next day at the University of Cape Town were well received, more notably the latter as it was less choreographed and so perceived as more sincere.
The UCT speech was noted for its focus on aspirations, ideas, and values. Obama remarked on the impossibility of predicting what was happening at that very moment—America’s first black president addressing a fully integrated audience at a South African university that had awarded an honorary degree to Nelson Mandela. Obama’s comments on the pernicious impact of corruption were particularly popular, reflecting South Africans’ dismay at increasing local corruption. His observation that government should serve its people rather than itself seemed to garner even more applause than when Obama greeted the crowd with South African salutations, including the ubiquitous “howzit”.
A Johannesburg-based friend shared an anecdote about a taxi driver she encountered who had journeyed to Soweto specifically to line the route the president’s motorcade would travel to his UJ Soweto speech. The driver was apparently enthralled by the experience. Other Johannesburg friends who were caught up in traffic snarl-ups related to the Obama visit remarked negatively on all the hardware that goes along with a presidential trip, with the word “circus” being used a few times.
While people overall appreciated that Obama, the first black American president, had come to South Africa, and recognized him as a “good guy”, others said “so what?” Many preferred instead to speak about their opposition to U.S. policies. They spoke of their dislike of U.S. surveillance methods and U.S. policies in the Middle East and the Pakistan/Afghanistan region. Others commented on the irony of Obama being so moved upon visiting Robben Island, where Mandela and other leaders from the anti-apartheid struggle were imprisoned for many years, while detainees from the war in Afghanistan are being held in Guantanamo Bay.
Obama coming to South Africa and making a couple of solid speeches certainly didn’t change the latent anti-Americanism of many South Africans. They need more than a once-in-a-blue-moon presidential visit to be convinced that the United States wants to engage seriously in Africa—and is not ceding Africa to the Chinese and Brazilians. For the United States to be more of a player here than it is, South Africans need to feel and see more commitment.
Personally, I do feel that the United States does not get the credit it should for its incredibly generous HIV/AIDS work here. Many hundreds of thousands of South Africans are alive today because of the U.S. PEPFAR Program, which began its life-sustaining donations of anti-retrovirals under President George W. Bush.
While Washington’s political sway might be diminishing in Africa, the pervasive impact of Hollywood and the U.S. music industry is amazing. The amusing, loveable minions from “Despicable Me” have, for example, achieved much attention in South Africa—wider than hapless American politicians? Reflecting clever marketing too, the minions appear in unexpected contexts here.
Is the soft power of American culture perhaps more powerful than the well-articulated thoughts of a visiting American president?