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Analyst Says Barack Obama in Unique Position to Address African Issues


Analysts at home and abroad continue to comment on what an Obama presidency will mean for the United States and the world. The former head of a South African opposition political party says Barack Obama's biography could allow him to play a unique role in Africa.

Tony Leon is a member of South Africa's parliament and former leader of the Democratic Alliance Party. Leon, who's currently at the CATO Institute in Washington, spoke to VOA English to Africa Service reporter Joe De Capua about the election of the first African-American president.

"I thought it was an extraordinary result. It was very exciting to be in Washington at such a time of transcending change. Secondly, I think it does offer a great deal of hope, not just to America but to the wider world. The biography of Barack Obama is such that I thought it was very affirming of what has come to be known as 'American exceptionalism.' That someone, really from such modest background, the son of a Muslim and a Kenyan, who was brought up in conditions of extreme modesty, can rise to be president of the United States based on an extraordinary effort on his part," he says.

He also praises American voters, saying that they "really are prepared to embrace change in a way that was unimaginable a few years ago. I was very struck by the fact that…(at) the time Barack Obama's Kenyan father and white Kansan mother got married, inter-racial unions were banned in many states in the United States. Well, now of course the offspring of that union is the president of the whole United States. And I think symbolically that means a great deal."

As for the effects the Obama presidency might have internationally, Leon says, "In parts of the world where there's an anti-Americanism, sometimes an uninformed one, sometimes beyond that, I think this offers a very powerful antidote to that. It's going to create a lot of cognitive dissonance for people who have a rather caricatured view of the United States."

Leon compares the election of Mr. Obama to that of Nelson Mandela as South African president in 1994. He says, "I think the election of Mandela, which I was probably too closely involved [with)…to have a sense of historic detachment, which one does now – but the election of Mandela on the 27th of April 1994 was an instance of a country like South Africa turning its back on three-and-a-half centuries of racial exclusion. So, I think there are these historic page-turning moments… And I certainly think Tuesday, November the 4th, was one and in South Africa the 27th of April was another."

Asked whether African countries might expect too much from the president-elect because of his African heritage, Leon says, "If you actually look at the program…Barack Obama's position on Africa is not much different…from his defeated opponent, John McCain. It's fairly mainstream stuff. It supports a lot of the initiatives that were started under President Bush (PEPFAR and Millennium Challenge Account).… My impression of Barack Obama's standpoint is that he would be more conditional. It would not be a case of…I'm half African, therefore I'm a soft touch. (He) would say I understand a lot about the continent and I'm going to offer you tough love.… I don't think he's a supporter of the kind of solidarity politics that have been practiced by the African Union, for example, in respect to the Sudan – the shielding of someone like (Sudanese President) Omar al-Bashir from international justice. If you look at Obama's record in the Senate, he's one of the prime people who brought (former Liberian leader) Charles Taylor to justice for his crimes in Sierra Leone."

Leon says Mr. Obama also has another advantage. "He is in a unique position perhaps of any American president ever to say things that are sometimes not said for reasons of history or political correctness when it comes to Africa."

He adds that the global economic crisis and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will occupy much of the new president's time and energy. "So…how much attention…South Africa and Africa are going to get is probably a good question," he says.

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