Soweto ready to welcome ‘fellow African’ Obama

Barack Obama was barely 15 years old when riots erupted in Soweto over the forced imposition of Afrikaans in black schools. Decades later, its residents are preparing to welcome the US president as a "fellow African".

Obama, now 51, will host a town hall meeting at the University of Johannesburg campus as part of his visit to a crucible of the fight against apartheid, which saw protests break out in 1976 that spread across the country.

Although the apartheid government was not defeated, the 1976 riots spawned a new generation of black liberation leaders who continued the struggle while senior figures like Nelson Mandela and others languished in prisons.

While hundreds of anti-Obama protesters marched on the US Embassy in Pretoria, 80 kilometres to the north on Friday, many Sowetans were keenly anticipating the visit by the first black US president.

"I want it to be a message of hope. I hope he talks about important things like education and the importance of going to school," Christopher Mutangwa, a 20-year-old accounting student, said outside the University of Johannesburg's (UJ) satellite Soweto campus.

"But I also hope that he can learn something about us and what happened here in Soweto during the struggle," Mutangwa told AFP.

"He should, because I think he is an African."

While there were few signs of preparation ahead of the highly anticipated visit at the UJ campus, many residents said they planned to line the streets, or watch the event on television.

"I was planning to visit my grandmother … but now I think I would rather go see Obama," said Sibongiseni Kekana (22) who makes a living as a struggling artist.

"Maybe I'll even sell something to him," Kekana laughed as he showed AFP around his tin shack, which also doubles as his art studio.

"In any case, I hope for inspiration from him," Kekana said.

But even with Obama visiting Soweto, the continuing illness of South Africa's own first black president, Nelson Mandela, never strays far from the conversation.

Mandela (94) spent a third week in the intensive care unit of a Pretoria hospital where he is being treated for a recurring lung infection.

After taking a turn for the worse last weekend, Madiba has been showing tentative signs of recovery.

Two generations of black leaders
With a possible visit by Obama to the ailing statesman on the cards over the weekend, inevitable comparisons are being drawn in many conversations.

"To me, Madiba represents an older and perhaps more traditional generation of black leaders, while Obama represents the new generation," Tshepo Mofokeng (43) told AFP.

"I'm sure he will be welcomed here as an African," said Mofokeng, as he took some pictures on his mobile phone of his children at the Hector Pieterson Museum, which covers the 1976 uprising.

"I just think he (Obama) is sexy," his wife Nomsa (36) added with a laugh.

Even though many people will flock to welcome the US head of state, not all Sowetans were happy with his presence and demonstrations were planned for Saturday.

"I don't think it's a good thing that he's coming here," said Freddy Mhaule (25).

"Especially with him spying on the world," he added, referring to the recent revelations about PRISM, the US Internet surveillance programme.

"Obama's visit will have zero impact on us," said an art vendor, who only wanted to be identified as "Lebo", at the Hector Pieterson Museum, which commemorates the death of the youth activist, shot dead in 1976 by apartheid police at the age of 12.

"To me he's just another politician," Lebo added, as he tried to sell tourists a wooden model of the Soweto home where Mandela once lived, which today serves as a museum. – Sapa-AFP

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Jan Hennop
Jan Hennop
AFP correspondent -- The Netherlands

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