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Soweto Students Look Forward to Obama Visit

  • Anita Powell

President Obama in White House video Jun 22, 2013

President Obama in White House video Jun 22, 2013

The University of Johannesburg’s Soweto campus is expected to be one of the stops for U.S. President Barack Obama when he visits South Africa. This campus, which caters to the black community of Soweto, is part of one of South Africa’s largest and most diverse universities.

The signs on the UJ Soweto campus show a welcome message in four languages, a symbol of how this university has evolved along with post-apartheid South Africa.

It’s the same message that many UJ Soweto students say they want to relay to the U.S. president during his visit to the country.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

VOA spoke to dozens of students on this campus in the sprawling black community. Many students say they hoped the president would speak about the problems of youth. South Africa’s unemployment rate, for example, is more than 26 percent.

Many, like student Anathi Manciya, 19, 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," admitted Manciya. "Humble, kind - yeah, I like the dude.”

Some, like human resources major Yanelisa Mlondleni, 22, were less restrained.

“I think Barack Obama - I love him, I can say. As he is the first black American to be a president," Mlondleni said. "He influences us. He inspires us, giving us motivations and stuff. And he made history by repeating his position again. I love him so much, that’s all I can say.”

But not all the students were so effusive. A small group of politics students said they were largely disappointed in Obama’s performance.

Political science major Kwanda Nkwanyana said he didn’t think Obama had kept his promises on issues such as the proposed closure of the U.S.-run detainee center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and that he had not intervened enough to stop the conflict in Syria.

He said he had very few expectations for Obama's first visit to South Africa as U.S. president.

“Nothing. This is the first time he’s come to visit. And when did he get elected into presidency? It was like 2008. And this is the first time," scoffed Nkwanyana. "And now everyone is just going to praise him because he’s done something big, but he hasn’t. See, the thing is people fail to realize that just because you’re black, it doesn’t mean you’re gonna have Africa’s interests, like, embedded in your heart or something. He’s American, he’s not black. There’s no such thing as a black country where people just give you stuff because you’re black. We have to have something for America, and if we don’t, then obviously they’re not going to have anything for us.”

And still others said they were not politically minded. But three members of the UJ Soweto choir asked if they could send their own, apolitical, message to the president. South Africa’s multilingual national anthem bears a simple message: God Bless Africa.

Obama is expected to speak on this campus. It’s a fitting choice: The university, one of the nation’s largest, is today a reflection of modern South Africa, with a primarily black student body.

The main curriculum is taught in English but university events, like graduations, are often hosted in English, Afrikaans, Zulu and Sesotho -- often with the academic speaker transitioning seamlessly from one language to another in the same, continuous speech.

Students said they don’t expect those linguistic gymnastics from the American president. But they hope he will bring something that translates into every language: hope.

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