Obama: Ideal vs Reality

Under fire: Barack Obama has angered Palestinians, who believe the United States favours Israel. (AP)

Under fire: Barack Obama has angered Palestinians, who believe the United States favours Israel. (AP)

The man from Chicago who lands on our shores this weekend is no ordinary man. He is a man who drew a record 1.8-million people to his first inauguration; such was the uniqueness, high expectations and promise of his entry into office.

I know of South Africans who made plans to raise funds to make the expensive journey to Washington, DC, just to be there when Obama made his inauguration speech as United States president.

Many who attended were not disappointed as he delivered a powerful and moving address.

Obama did not have a privileged upbringing. He came from a modest family and his grandparents raised him.
He was abandoned by his father at a young age but he defied all odds to land himself an Ivy-League education and he rose up to become president of Harvard Law School.

But the biggest obstacle he overcame was the racial barrier. In a country where African-Americans are a minority and are the poorest, least educated section of the population, his ascent was nothing short of miraculous.

But whatever merits he brought to the office in 2008, the aura and respect he had appears to have diminished. His record in office has been less than flattering. It is that which explains why, when Obama arrives here, he will be perplexed that he has as many fans as he has enemies in South Africa.

But the US president should not be too surprised. One of the primary disappointments in South Africa has been his Middle East policy, where he has been perceived to have chosen to protect the Israel’s government over the welfare of Palestinians.

This year he visited Israel but excluded the Palestinian areas from his itinerary. Although he has spoken about a Palestine state being viable, many Palestinians are convinced his actions betray the opposite.

The US was the only country to veto a resolution in the United Nations Security Council that called for a halt to Israeli construction in the West Bank. The US also pledged to veto the Palestinians' bid to join the UN and lobbied against it.

South Africa was supported by many international anti-apartheid organisations, including Palestinian ones, at a time when Israel’s government was doing business with the apartheid government.

Obama’s seemingly uncritical defence of Israel has lost him support with many South Africans who identify closely with what the Palestinians are going through. 

His continued use of drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan — which have killed hundreds of civilians — have led to questions whether his administration is any different to the one run by his predecessor, George W Bush, and his deputy, Dick Cheney.

When it comes to this continent, Obama — who has been denounced by some rightwingers in the US as not truly American — appears to have tried too hard to show that his father’s homeland will not be unduly favoured by the US government. His only other visit to Africa was a whirlwind 18-hour visit to Ghana. 

That led to stinging criticism that even the conservative Bush was more interested in Africa than Obama.

He has also disappointed many on the progressive left with his intrusive trampling of human rights, particularly freedom of speech. 

Earlier this year, the media exposed how the Obama administration secretly obtained two months of phone records for Associated Press journalists. That included both work and personal phone numbers. 

The seizure of the phone records appears linked to an investigation into who provided information to the news organisation in 2012 about a foiled terrorist plot.

The current furore around whistle-blower Edward Snowden, who exposed how the US government was monitoring and collecting citizens’ phone records, data and internet records, has also exposed Obama’s overzealousness in trying to show that he is not soft on security issues. 

But Obama has only started his second term and still has an opportunity to redeem his record over the next three years. His supporters also argue that he is hampered by the inherent institutional constraints of the White House and the leash with which every president is held once they enter that office. However, I am convinced that he would be disappointed not to leave a personal stamp on the White House.

This point about institutional constraints and political legacies is what I often highlight to compatriots who give the impression that this country’s problems start and end with President Jacob Zuma. 

Being in office isn’t child’s play and I can’t believe how many people sulk and form political parties just because they can’t stand Zuma. These include Agang SA, Cope and now the Economic Freedom Fighters. 

If you removed Zuma today and replaced him with Kgalema Motlanthe, Mamphela Ramphele or Mosiuoa Lekota, South Africa wouldn’t immediately be on the way to repairing all its ills. That is patently illogical.

Once in a while personalities will wow us (Obama) or disappoint us (Zuma), but that is often only a fraction of what’s wrong with our societies. Those who truly want fundamental change must “smash the state” and effect a revolution in governance as a system. But in the meantime we will have to make do with Obama’s charm and oratory and Msholozi’s singing voice.

Rapule Tabane

Rapule Tabane

Rapule Tabane is the Mail & Guardian's politics editor. He sometimes worries that he is a sports fanatic, but is in fact just crazy about Orlando Pirates. While he used to love reading only fiction, he is now gradually starting to enjoy political biographies. He was a big fan of Barack Obama, but now accepts that even he is only mortal. Read more from Rapule Tabane

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