Obama’s visit provides an opportunity for South Africans

With Presidents Obama and Zuma on the defensive, now is the ideal time for the emergence of anti-imperialist groups.

US President Barack Obama is on a three-nation tour of Africa [EPA]

President Barack Obama’s trip to South Africa this weekend may have the desired effect of slowing the geopolitical realignment of Pretoria to the Brazil-India-Russia-China-SA (BRICS) axis. That shift did not necessarily mean a deviation from the local leaders’ political philosophy, best understood as “Talk Left, Walk Right,” which mixes anti-imperialist rhetoric with hard-nosed pro-corporate economic policies.

But it did reflect concerns expressed on Tuesday by Ben Rhodes, a White House deputy national security adviser:

“What we hear from our businesses is that they want to get in the game in Africa. There are other countries getting in the game in Africa – China, Brazil, Turkey. And if the US is not leading in Africa, we’re going to fall behind in a very important region of the world.”

Inside Story: Obama in Africa – Too little, too late?

President Jacob Zuma’s government, like that of his predecessor Thabo Mbeki, has presented South Africa as the “gateway” to the continent. Two major political victories – hosting the BRICS summit in Durban three months ago and ensuring that a Pretoria diplomat, Zuma’s former wife Nkozozana Dlamini-Zuma, won the leadership of the African Union last year – were accompanied by Johannesburg’s renewed status as Africa’s largest foreign investor within the continent.

Is Pretoria ready to ditch its traditional sub-imperial “deputy sheriff” role to Washington’s imperial sheriff, and instead to look east? Obama knows well that some of Pretoria’s neoliberal coordination activities have been fumbled.

For example, George W Bush’s State Department labelled Mbeki’s 2001 New Partnership for Africa’s Development “philosophically spot-on”, and yet there was precious little to show for the subsequent dozen years of appeals for Western foreign investment and increased aid. Even funding for AIDS medicines was chopped in austerity budgets, such as Obama’s recent $200m cut to Bush’s PEPFAR programme, which closed the three main hospital-based AIDS programmes here in Durban, the city with the world’s highest number of HIV+ residents.

Obama also reportedly intensified Bush’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) military support to the continent’s dictators, and Edward Snowden’s whistle-blowing regarding internet snooping recalled WikiLeaks revelations from state department cables during Hillary Clinton’s reign. In 2009, while helping prepare Obama’s speech about good governance in Accra, Clinton asked eleven of Washington’s embassies in Africa to collect fingerprints, DNA, iris scans, email passwords, credit card account numbers, frequent flyer account numbers and work schedules of local political, military, business and religious leaders, including United Nations officials.

Since then, Obama has been criticised for military intervention in oil-soaked Libya and AFRICOM’s fight against teh al-Shabaab armed group in Somalia, for alleged mercenary support and reported torture-rendition activities in several African countries, and for deployment of drones and US troops in authoritarian Uganda.

Obama pays tribute to Nelson Mandela

Zuma may be too diplomatic to have raised these matters in Pretoria on Saturday morning, because he needs to project strength after his own foreign-policy failings came to light. In the Central African Republic in March, just three days before the BRICS gathered, a firefight with the Chad-backed Seleka rebel movement left 13 South African army troops dead. They were defending not only the person dubbed by many the resident tyrant, François Bozizé, but also Johannesburg businesses, including some with crucial links to leaders of the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

With the hero of most South Africans, Nelson Mandela, near death, the degenerate state of the ANC is an enormous tragedy. Zuma’s own family and close friends have gained countless crony-capitalist benefits from a patronage-obsessed state apparatus. Mentioning “Number One” [Zuma] reportedly gave his pals, the Gupta family, sufficient clout to use the Waterkloof airforce base for a wedding party’s jet landing from India last month, to society’s great shame.

The president’s notorious nephew Khulubuse Zuma recently wrecked a major Johannesburg mining house, Aurora, with vast collateral damage to thousands of workers and the natural environment. He then shifted to the oil business in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, where another 1,350 South African troops were recently deployed. Their mission was to “babysit”, according to Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula last month – a description that belies the danger should it eventually be revealed that their deployment was to run interference for corporate mining houses against the allegedly Rwandan-backed M23 guerrillas.

Since the DRC is within the Southern African Development Community, Zuma probably feels that this mineral-rich terrain is Pretoria’s “backyard” – certainly moreso than it could be US, French or Belgian neo-colonial territory. That means tensions will inexorably rise between the competing mineral extraction strategies of Western multinational mining houses and oil companies, Chinese state firms, Zuma’s crony-capitalists and the formerly Johannesburg-based corporates such as Anglo American – now financially headquartered in London – which have the most extraction experience.

Terrible conflagrations will probably continue in Central Africa; in the resource-cursed Great Lakes region a conservatively estimated five million people have died as a result of conflict and disease since the mid-1990s. Responding appropriately will require mobilisation of anti-war consciousness and activism in South Africa just as much as it will in other source-sites of African conflict, including within the US.

Encouragingly, a small anti-imperialist movement has emerged here, announcing three protests against Barack Obama – in Pretoria on Friday, Soweto on Saturday and Cape Town on Sunday – especially because of ongoing US meddling in the Middle East, what with Palestinians under the thumb of an Israeli occupation largely approved and subsidised by Washington.

Several other grievances were expressed by hundreds who marched to the US embassy in Pretoria, and hundreds more who objected to an honorary doctorate granted to Obama by the University of Johannesburg. Issues raised included the Cuban Five’s imprisonment in Miami and the US blockade of Cuba, the torture chamber of Guantanamo Bay, warmongering in Syria, AFRICOM, support for Israeli apartheid, the kangaroo court trial of Bradley Manning, email and phone call snooping, AIDS medicine cutbacks, Obama’s reported close ties with African dictators, Washington’s ongoing structural adjustment philosophy and the neoliberal “Africa Growth and Opportunity Act” conditions.

With both Obama and Zuma on the back foot, this is an ideal moment for a new solidarity movement to make its case.

Patrick Bond directs the Centre for Civil Society at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban.