South Africans gave positive reviews to President Barack Obama’s speech at the memorial for Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg on Tuesday. The popular local cartoonist Zapiro (a.k.a. Jonathan Shapiro) drew Obama capturing the essence of the man, drawing South Africa’s own president, Jacob Zuma, dripping dumbly underneath a shower. (The reference is to a remark Zuma made years ago about showering to prevent Aids.)
I have also heard from South African friends that they liked the speech. One wrote to say it was “great”–though he allowed that it was probably only great in comparison to Obama’s other speeches. That is about right. It was a decent speech, wholly forgettable but largely appropriate to the occasion, except for Obama’s trademark self-references. Obama’s swipes at his domestic political opposition would have escaped his overseas audience.
South Africa is in a deep political rut. It looks ahead to national elections next year, certain that the ruling African National Congress (ANC) will win again, despite the party’s many failures and Zuma’s corruption and incompetence. The main opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA), is growing in strength but has not broken the habitual loyalty of black voters to the party of liberation–frustrated though they are with its leadership.
Obama, to many South Africans, represents an idealized image of who they wish they could vote for: a black leftist who cherishes the anti-colonial narrative and speaks intelligently about the issues of the day. Insulated from the consequences of his statist policies and his administration’s assault on constitutionalism, he remains for South Africans what he was to many Americans in 2008: a “blank slate” on which they can project fantasies.
His speech did not include any new or profound insights. It was preceded by a condemnable handshake with the leader of the Cuban regime, and accompanied by a fake sign language interpretation that spoke volumes about the dire state of South African officialdom. Yet Obama provided South Africans several minutes of much-needed escape from their own grim political reality, from the burden that Mandela’s political party has become.
There is an American parallel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is far less popular in Israel than he is in the U.S. He barely limped to victory in the most recent Israeli elections. Yet when he addressed Congress in 2011, he was the first leader–foreign or domestic–to celebrate, whole-heartedly, the death of Osama bin Laden. It was a moment of pride that the hapless Obama administration had long resisted. Congress leapt to its feet.