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Obama Encounters Protests, Praise on South Africa Visit

  • Anita Powell

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks and takes questions at a town hall meeting with young African leaders at the University of Johannesburg Soweto campus, South Africa, June 29, 2013.

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks and takes questions at a town hall meeting with young African leaders at the University of Johannesburg Soweto campus, South Africa, June 29, 2013.

U.S. President Barack Obama launched a historic visit to South Africa on Saturday, his first visit here as president. He has been welcomed by officials, but not all South Africans are happy about his presence. On Saturday, a group of protesters gathered outside the University of Johannesburg’s Soweto campus, where the president was speaking to young South Africans. Protesters said they oppose Obama’s foreign policy and criticized his performance on human rights issues.

South African President Jacob Zuma said he was “honored” to host U.S. President Barack Obama on his first visit to the country as president. Obama has a full schedule in South Africa during his weekend visit: several bilateral talks, a state dinner, and a visit to Robben Island where Mandela spent decades in prison.

Obama is focusing on Africa’s youth during a speech to students at the University of Johannesburg’s Soweto campus Saturday afternoon. Ahead of the speech, VOA spoke to dozens of students, most of whom who said they were excited and enthusiastic about the president’s visit and praised his tenure as president.

Many, like 19-year-old student Anathi Manciya, offered high praise for the U.S. president.

“I think he’s a great leader. I compare him to guys like Nelson Mandela. Yeah. I really like the dude," said Manciya. "Humble, kind, yeah, I like the dude.”

Watch the town hall meeting at the University of Johannesburg - Soweto.

Protesters run away after police fired two warning shots to clear the street from a demonstration against the visit of United States President Barack Obama to the university building in Soweto, South Africa, June 29, 2013.

Protesters run away after police fired two warning shots to clear the street from a demonstration against the visit of United States President Barack Obama to the university building in Soweto, South Africa, June 29, 2013.

But not all South Africans have been so welcoming. On Saturday morning, dozens of protesters gathered on the busy Soweto road in front of the campus. They held aloft signs that read “Stop World War III - Remove Obama” and “Obama Killed Gadhafi -- Who’s Next?”

The protesters -- who came from a prominent union coalition, a Muslim advocacy group and South Africa’s Communist Party -- offered several reasons for their opposition.

Claire Ceruti, a former UJ staff member who is now a student there, is a self-identified socialist. She says she opposes the university’s decision to confer an honorary doctorate on the American president.

“We’re calling it a dishonorary doctorate because we feel it will dishonor all of us to be just handing out these things to a head of state who, for us, doesn’t have a very good record," Ceruti said.

One of Obama’s goals on this trip was to speak to the youth of Africa. But 19-year-old UJ student Nomagugu Hloma was having none of it.

“I do not want to hear anything from Barack Obama. I am not interested in anything he is going to say to me. I do not view him as a credible leader, he is not," Hloma said. "He killed Gadhafi, and the government of Gadhafi in Libya was a good government. We don’t regard him as a leader. If we want leadership, we will speak to our own leaders.”

Phutas Tseki, the regional chair of powerful trade coalition COSATU, says he belongs to the South African Communist Party. He disagrees with Obama’s foreign policy decisions and says the American president has broken promises.

“When the president, President Obama, was ushered (in) to the world, he promised that he’s going to make sure that he settled the dispute between Palestine and Israel people," Tseki said. "But the United States has continued to support, financially, it has continued to support Israel through arms to attack and displace people of Palestine from their land. There was a promise that Guantanamo Bay is going to be closed, even today, people are still standing there for many years without trial.”

Since his election in 2008, most South Africans have expressed support for the American president, with some conferring upon him the highest possible praise by comparing him to South African icon Nelson Mandela.

Many say they see something of their beloved leader in Obama. Both were the first black president of their country, and both were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
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