Obama's SA plans hang in the balance
United States President Barack Obama arrives in South Africa on Friday on an official working visit that has been overshadowed by concerns about the deteriorating health of former president Nelson Mandela.
The Mail & Guardian can reveal that, should Mandela not pull through, Obama’s visit would shift dramatically from the current plan.
“If something happens, we’re not going to continue with some of the events," said an American insider who cannot be identified because they’re not mandated to speak on behalf of the White House, Obama’s seat of government.
“At this point, we’re watching the news closely on Mandela."
American diplomats are worried that any big news on Mandela could shift the attention off Obama’s visit and outshine the tour, but in addition, believe the US should take action to show respect to the elder statesman.
The White House said on Monday that it was monitoring Mandela’s condition after learning that he had gone from stable to critical, but could not yet say whether his deteriorating health would affect Obama’s trip.
“I wouldn’t want to speculate about the impact of Mr Mandela’s health on the president’s trip," said White House spokesperson Jay Carney.
As part of this trip, Obama was hoping to meet the ailing Mandela, who has been in hospital since June 8, battling a recurring lung infection.
Obama’s request to see South Africa’s former president, who is said to be his political role model, was not approved because of Mandela’s condition.
US embassy spokesperson John Hillmeyer told the M&G that the US continues to prepare for Obama’s visit as planned.
“The president and all Americans continue to put Mr Mandela in our prayers and we’re wishing him well."
The US embassy also said it did not know whether Obama would meet Mandela’s family or his foundation.
Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security advisor, told journalists during a conference call last Friday that the US president would be guided by the Mandela family on what to do.
“Ultimately, we want whatever is in the best interest of his health and the peace of mind of the Mandela family," Rhodes said.
“We’ll be driven by their own determinations in that regard. We’ll be in touch with them. The president wants to support them in any way. And if he has an opportunity to see the family in some capacity, that’s certainly something that we may do."
Mandela’s condition worsened over the weekend, with the presidency describing it as having become “critical".
Meanwhile, Obama’s visit to South Africa has been a security nightmare for the host, as Americans made demands about safety measures that South Africa regarded as excessive.
A senior South African security agent said the US demands presented a logistical nightmare, but that the host accepted that it was in the US’s nature to do that.
“Americans have never trusted anybody with the security of their president, especially after September 11," the agent said. “They do that everywhere their president goes."
US government officials said they were taking Obama’s security very seriously. “We’ve got very strong security concerns for our president," said one official, who preferred to remain anonymous.
Hillmeyer said the US was not doing anything differently from what they would do when its president visited other countries, but that every country has its own situation.
“We’re planning accordingly for each country."
'Particular' about security
South Africa, however, played down an observation that the US had an upper hand in Obama’s security plans for this trip because Americans did not have confidence in the host country’s security capabilities.
“All the security measures they are putting in place are consistent with what they do on similar visits to other countries," said an international relations official, who also said there was “nothing unusual" with the demands.
The official said American security agencies were similarly “quite particular" about security detail for US secretary of state Hillary Clinton when she visited South Africa last year.
The official, however, said US security agents who are in South Africa for Obama’s visit are just “controlling security around their own president, not everything. That’s okay with us."
Hillmeyer said US security agents “have been working very closely with your security forces. They [local security] know the country better."
Several anti-Obama protests by unhappy groups are expected, including trade union federation Cosatu, the South African Communist Party, student organisations and civic groups.
International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane told the media this week that protests are part of a democratic means of expressing unhappiness.
“Will there be demonstrations? Yes, this is a democratic country," she said. “There will be those who feel they need to be heard, as long as they do it peacefully."
Hillmeyer said the US supported free speech and was not worried about the protests.
“It’s not uncommon for protests to take place when the president visits other countries, and even when he’s within the US."
This week, US-branded military helicopters were seen flying over Johannesburg and Pretoria as part of the security operation for Obama’s visit. In addition, the Washington Post reported that hundreds of US secret service agents have been dispatched to secure facilities in all the countries that Obama is scheduled to visit.
“Military cargo planes will airlift in 56 support vehicles, including 14 limousines and three trucks loaded with sheets of bulletproof glass to cover the windows of the hotels where the Obamas will stay," the Post reported.
Also, a US Navy aircraft carrier, or amphibious ship, with a fully staffed medical trauma centre will be stationed offshore in case of an emergency.