In Africa Keynote, Obama Channels Mandela, Kennedy, Gandhi

President Barack Obama delivered the keynote address of his Africa trip at the University of Cape Town on Sunday evening, citing his own life and the lives of Nelson Mandela, Robert Kennedy, and Mahatma Gandhi as examples for Africa's youth.

"So Mandela’s life, like Kennedy’s life, like Gandhi's life, like the life of all those who fought to bring about a new South Africa or a more just America--they stand as a challenge to me. But more importantly, they stand as a challenge to your generation, because they tell you that your voice matters--your ideals, your willingness to act on those ideals, your choices can make a difference," Obama told the audience packed into Jameson Hall.

The first portion of Obama's address focused on his own reminiscences of visiting South Africa, and his early experience in the anti-apartheid movement as a student in the U.S. (Obama used the word "I" some seventy-two times, mostly in the first thousand words of his 5,000-word text.)

Obama then congratulated South Africa on its progress since the end of apartheid--not just politically, but economically and culturally as well. He also noted Africa's rapid economic growth, and the advent of democracy across the continent. 

Yet he also warned that "progress is uneven," and that there was also growing inequality in many African societies, as well as the dangers of corruption and conflict. It was up to the youth of Africa, he said, to make the choices that would set Africa on the path to a prosperous and stable future.

It was also up to the United States to assist--and, to that end, Obama said, "I’m calling for America to up our game when it comes to Africa." He pledged to encourage American companies to invest in Africa and to renew the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, which grants African exports preferential access to U.S. markets. He also hailed U.S. efforts to help South Africa confront HIV/Aids (though he did not mention that the effort was launched by his predecessor, George W. Bush, against resistance from the South African government).

Among Obama's pledges was one new initiative, "Power Africa," a $7 billion government grant to help double power generation in sub-Saharan Africa. The emphasis, Obama said, would be to "support clean energy to protect our planet and combat climate change"--an effort that has not offered a good return on government investment in the U.S. under Obama, but which he hoped would "lift people out of poverty" in Africa.

Obama also attacked corruption in Africa, noting that there were "communities where you can’t start a business, or go to school, or get a house without paying a bribe to somebody." He told the audience that his administration does not try to pick African leaders, but stands up for strong institutions, independent judiciaries, for women's rights, and "for journalists and NGOs, and community organizers and activists."

He closed by celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Organization of African Unity (widely derided as a club of dictators, and later replaced by the African Union). And he declared, as he did earlier this month in Northern Ireland, that identity--"the choices ordinary people make that divide us from one another"--is the great obstacle to change in Africa. Instead, Obama called for a spirit of "justice and equality...freedom and solidarity."


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