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A South African Take on the U.S. Race

Interviewee: Moeletsi Mbeki, Deputy Chairman, South African Institute of International Affairs
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
July 12, 2012

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South Africans feel a "special relationship" with the Democratic Party for its history of support for the anti-apartheid movement, as well as for the fact that President Obama's "commitment to democracy in Africa has made him an ally to the majority of Africans, who feel that democracy in a way is a precondition to the solution of our problems," says South African scholar Moeletsi Mbeki. In contrast, Mbeki says, Republicans, "in terms of South Africa, don't have a good record," citing in particular former president Ronald Reagan's avoidance of strong sanctions against the apartheid regime. If Africans could vote in the upcoming elections, Obama would win "by a landslide," says Mbeki.

Given that President Obama's father was Kenyan, I would expect that he is quite popular in Africa. Is that the case?

I don't think people put a lot of emphasis on Obama's being of African origin. Most people understand that Obama's responsibilities as the president of the United States are to the people who voted for him. But we South Africans, black South Africans in particular, have had a lot of support from African-Americans going back to the nineteenth century. We had many people at the end of the nineteenth century and beginnings of the twentieth century going to study at places like Lincoln University; many of the founders of the nationalist movement studied in the United States. In fact, Pixley ka Isaka Seme, a founder of the African National Congress (ANC), studied law at Columbia. The African Methodist Episcopal Church was and is influential in South Africa since the last quarter of the nineteenth century and it has lots of members in this country.

What about political ties to the United States?

There has been a special relationship with the Democratic Party in the post-Second World War era. This is especially true for the Kennedy family, which was very supportive of our struggle against apartheid. One of the first military sanctions imposed against the apartheid regime was during President John F. Kennedy's term, after the massacres in Sharpeville in 1960. Edward Kennedy was posthumously honored by the South African government earlier this year for the work he did against apartheid. Obviously, Obama being an African-American and a Democrat, we see him in South Africa as an ally in the same way as the Kennedys and Jimmy Carter.

Has Obama created a lot of enthusiasm for himself or is he just considered another Democrat?

It was very positive that the United States had a new president, and that he realized that he had to dissociate the United States from strong men like Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, who had had a lot of [the] United States' support.

Obviously, there was a lot of interest about Obama, because he is the first African-American president in the United States. He's a very eloquent guy; he's kind of in the league of Martin Luther King. If you remember, he spoke in Cairo, and in Accra, Ghana. What he said then resonated very strongly with people in Africa, especially the point he made that what Africa needs is not strong men but strong institutions. We suffer at the hands of strong men. So it was very positive that the United States had a new president, and that he realized that he had to dissociate the United States from strong men like Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, who had had a lot of the United States' support. Obama's commitment to democracy in Africa has made him an ally to the majority of Africans, who feel that democracy in a way is a precondition to the solution of our problems.

Are Africans familiar with Republican candidate Mitt Romney?

Not until he started running against Obama. The Republicans, certainly in terms of South Africa, don't have a good record. In more recent times Ronald Reagan had a policy of "constructive engagement" with the apartheid regime, which we, South African blacks, were totally against. But I have to give credit to George W. Bush, who instituted good anti HIV/AIDS programs.

If the Africans could vote in the American presidential elections, would they favor President Obama?

Definitely. Because of Obama's strong message of democracy in Africa, he would win by a landslide.

What reaction did Michelle Obama get when she visited South Africa last year?

She got a huge, very strong, and warm reception from all the sectors of South Africa. A lot of people admire her.

You have been critical about the emphasis on consumption instead of investment in South Africa.

It's a huge problem. We are somewhere near to 40 percent unemployment in South Africa. One of the causes of is this drive for consumption, especially for the black middle class, instead of investment in infrastructure, in industry, and so on.

Are people getting unemployment insurance? How do they survive?

There is some kind of a welfare program for children under sixteen, but the government is planning to raise it to eighteen, so that is kind of a welfare program. But the problem with these welfare programs is that funds or resources that should go into job creation are used for welfare, which then goes into consumption. Therefore, we don't have investment, and therefore we're not creating the jobs that would lead to making those people self-sufficient instead of dependent on state welfare.

You've also been critical of the ANC, right?

Well, the ANC runs the government that is driving this consumer revolution.

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