As the first black president of the USA, Barack Obama is undoubtedly one of the world’s most recognisable faces and among the most influential personalities of the modern day.
But when he visited South Africa in June, as part of a three-African-nation tour, the earth simply did not quake with his mighty presence. He was reduced to a very ordinary size.
A Gallup survey had also shown Obama losing popularity in Africa. In fact, apart from the visit being overshadowed by the failing health of the iconic Nelson Mandela, Obama’s tour was met with three demonstrations staged in Pretoria, Johannesburg and Cape Town.
South African students, workers and other groups decided to give Obama a frosty welcome. Ahead of his visit, on 28 June, groups including South Africa’s Communist Party, the Confederation of South African Trade Unions, South African Students Congress, and the South African Muslim Students Association, staged a protest in Pretoria. Hundreds attended the demo at a sports ground.
A day later, protestors picketed at the University of Johannesburg’s Soweto Campus. Uniting under the banner, “UJ, no you can’t honour Obama” coalition, the “Nobamas” protested animatedly. Students were specifically protesting against UJ’s conferment of an honorary degree on Obama. They considered the decision was reached in a “unilateral” and “hypocritical” fashion.
“As the University of Johannesburg,” Levi Masete, Student Representative Council (SRC) leader told New African, “we reject the decision to honour a man that has made unpopular mistakes… [and has] continued American imperialism.” The UJ SRC withdrew its allotted five representatives from Obama’s meeting with youth leaders.
Protestors also wanted Obama arrested for what they alleged were US war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq; and its complicity in the Israeli’s oppression of Palestinians.
“Our message is simple and straightforward: Obama should not have been allowed in our country,” Joseph Morallana, SACP treasurer for Gauteng province said.
“Obama is the opposite of Mandela, whom he says is his role model,” he added.
Another protestor, Robert Ditlopo agreed. “What he stands for – Zionism and apartheid – is what leaders like Robert Sobukwe stood against,” he said.
The campus is adorned with names of anti-apartheid fighters like Sobukwe. The campus itself is along Chris Hani Weg.
Ruwaidah Valley did not represent any organisation but came out on her own to swell the word against Obama. “He is a war criminal who should not have been allowed in South Africa,” she said.
“He has allowed drone strikes against innocent civilians. He wiped out an entire village in Yemen … he is responsible for the rape, pillage and plunder of innocent civilians all over the world especially in Afghanistan and Iraq and he assists Israel’s suppression of Palestine. It is sad that he is black and that he is a black with Muslim roots,” she said.
Protestors decried Guantanamo Bay prison, a notorious facility where terror suspects are held without trial. They also demanded the release of the Cuban 5 and the lifting of the sanctions on Cuba and Zimbabwe.
The demonstrators sang struggle songs. They chanted, “Away with Obama, Away” and “Go home Yankee!” Among the protestors was 10-year-old Thabiso Madibela from Orange farm, who raised his fist to “Amandla” (power) against Obama.
The protestors had to be dispersed by the police force and they registered their displeasure at being told to end their picket a whole hour before Obama came to UJ.
At 2.35pm, local time, police fired a stun gun to disperse the crowd. Obama zoomed in with his expansive and expensive escort at 3.25pm.
Protests followed Obama a day later, in Cape Town where, again, people vented anger at the US leader, this time intent on throwing shoes at him in a classic demonstration of contempt and Muslim anger.
Obama addressed youths at the Cape Town University, but the analysts were not impressed by him. Cape Town-based Joel B Pollack, editor-in-chief and in-house counsel at Breitbart News, said Obama’s trip to Africa, “seemed to have no real purpose”.
Said Pollack: “Much of his trip to Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania consists of sightseeing with his family – and an entourage of 1,000, at a cost to US taxpayers of $60m to $100m.”
Obama visited several places of interest including Robben Island where Mandela was once incarcerated. “One hopes, at least, that the expensive memories will last,” Pollack said. Analyst Adekeye Adebajo attributed the lack of enthusiasm at Obama’s visit to “six deadly sins”, among them “the militarisation of US engagement with Africa” and Obama’s “peddling (of) negative stereotypes about his ancestral home (Africa)”.