The U.S. bureau chief for the South African Broadcasting Corporation, Manelisi Dubase, says this week’s Democratic Party convention in Denver has stirred “tremendous and unprecedented” interest in American politics in Africa. The SABC is Africa’s largest broadcaster, beaming radio and television programs across the continent. Dubase says Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, whose father was Kenyan, is increasingly seen as “Africa’s savior” by a significant number of Africans. By contrast, says Dubase, many Africans regard Republican candidate John McCain as an “enemy of progress.”
The veteran journalist doesn’t beat about the bush when explaining why he’s covering “every second” of this week’s Democratic convention in Denver and why he’ll be doing the same at next week’s Republican gathering in Minneapolis.
“The Obama factor!” he exclaims, without hesitation.
Dubase also readily acknowledges that his presence at the Republican event will be based largely on perceptions in Africa that McCain is “standing in the way of a black man becoming the leader of the greatest nation on earth.”
The reporter says the unwavering interest in Obama in Africa should be viewed within the context of what he brands “global black solidarity.”
“Some will differ with me, especially black conservatives in the U.S., but I think most black people, especially in Africa, see in him a possible leader of all blacks in the world. Therefore, if Obama is elected American president, they will regard as him as not only the leader of America, but as their leader, as their champion, as well.”
According to Dubase, the rise of Obama isn’t the first time that black people around the world have united behind someone, based upon a mixture of skin color, statesmanship and charisma.
“If you talk about (slain American civil rights leader) Martin Luther King. Junior, every black person, from New Orleans to Soweto, they all feel that they own part of him. If you talk about Nelson Mandela, they all feel that they own part of him.”
Dubase says such strong feelings transcend politics and cross over into other social realms, like sports. He points to Tiger Woods, the U.S. and the world’s first champion black golfer.
“Black people around the world feel pride because of him, even though many have never even seen a golf course in their lives. When he won his first prestigious golf tournament, everybody was ululating in Africa. He is part of Africa.”
Sometimes, adds Dubase, the “global black solidarity” phenomenon takes on a “more sinister” tinge.
“When (former U.S. sports star) O.J. Simpson was accused of murdering his wife, blacks around the world were in solidarity with O.J. Simpson,” he comments.
But Dubase says Africa’s “spotlight” on Obama and the Democratic Party convention should also be seen in a historical context.
“It’s an historic event; even Americans themselves say so all the time. It will be the first time in the history of this country that an African American (could) become the president of America. It’s an unbelievable point in American and world history, given America’s racist past – and present, to some degree.”
Africans also desperate for change in the U.S.
Dubase says Africans expect a “hell of a lot – perhaps too much” from Obama. Firstly, he says, they expect the Democrat to easily triumph over McCain in the November election…and the journalist himself is convinced this won’t be the case.
“Unlike many Africans, I don’t think an Obama victory is a foregone conclusion,” Dubase says.
He says many Africans he’s spoken too during his fieldwork on the continent have expressed the certainty that American policy towards Africa will “drastically change” in the event of an Obama presidency. Again, Dubase doubts whether this’ll happen. But, he does acknowledge that it’s “kind of realistic” to hope that if Obama indeed occupies the Oval Office, Washington’s decisions that affect the lives of Africans will be more “sober.” For example, Dubase hopes that Obama gets the opportunity to institute reforms that will open up U.S. markets to African agricultural produce, thereby generating income for the continent’s struggling farmers.
Dubase also acknowledges that Obama’s “rock star status” in Africa is partly due to a dearth of quality statesmanship and poor political leadership in Africa itself.
The journalist explains, “If (Zimbabwean President Robert) Mugabe steals the elections and goes about as the legitimate president of Zimbabwe, and the African Union, in effect, legitimizes that theft, that fraud, and if you have the Darfur issue, which is unresolved, and the conflict in Somalia…because there’s no (African) leadership and there’s no willingness…(Africans) become so desperate that they look anywhere for leadership and perhaps Obama might have (emerged at) the right time, when Africans are desperately looking for leadership.”
Dubase says Africans increasingly see in Obama a “black American president who will understand what sort of impact conflict (has) in Africa, while our own leaders are so comfortable in their palaces, not knowing what’s going on just across the street from where they are staying.”
This, he says, is despite the fact that Obama, just like McCain, has said “precious little” about Africa and its problems leading up to the conventions and the election.
Africans ignorant of Obama’s policies
Dubase says at this point in time, Africa’s obsession with Obama is based mostly upon the fact that the candidate is black and is an inspiring orator.
“People might really want Obama to be president just because Obama is black, without even knowing what Obama stands for. If you go to the streets of Africa, and ask individuals: ‘Do you know Barack Obama? Who is he?’ (They will say) ‘Yah! He’s this guy, this black guy who’s standing for the presidency in America.’ (And you ask) ‘Do you like him?’ (And they will say) ‘Of course!’ (And then you ask) ‘What does he stand for?’ And they will reply with silence!”
Dubase says during all the interviews he’s done about Obama in Africa, only a few people were able to recall specific policies that the candidate is standing for.
“Others, (they just want Obama to win) because he’s black; (they say) our black boy is going to be the president of America; that’s it!”
Dubase says Africans are paying scant attention to McCain, other than to his status as Obama’s opponent.
“They know that he exists, but they are just sick and tired of George W. Bush, and…. in Africa, they see John McCain as George Bush’s third term.”
Dubase says African opposition to Washington’s war in Iraq “runs deep,” as do “bad feelings” towards the U.S. because of its attempts to establish the AFRICOM military command on the continent and its “unfair” trade policies pertaining to Africa.
He concedes, though, that Mr. Bush’s administration has received wide praise in Africa for the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. Under PEPFAR, the U.S. has provided life-prolonging medication to 1.5 million people worldwide, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa. PEPFAR has also supported HIV testing and counseling for more than 33 million people and care for more than 6.6 million people, including about 2.7 million orphans and other children infected and affected by HIV.
Shouts of racism
Dubase says some media outlets in Africa are already rife with speculation that “America isn’t ready to be led by a black person” and are anticipating a “backlash” against Obama based on race.
“In a country such as South Africa, I can assure you that you (will) hear that, because we still come fresh from that history of racism…. Certainly in South Africa you are going to hear that, and in southern Africa, like in Namibia and Zimbabwe. I doubt in other countries that it will be the main theme (if Obama loses). But of course, when these noises come from (southern Africa), you might have the whole of Africa coming to that conclusion, that this is all racism.”
Dubase says if Obama is indeed victorious, it’ll be “almost impossible” for him to live up to Africa’s expectations.
“The love affair may very well come to a traumatic end!” he laughs.
But at the moment, says Dubase, the euphoria in Africa surrounding Barack Obama and the corresponding vilification of John McCain, is growing as the November election approaches.
“Black people, especially young Africans, see in Obama someone who belongs to their generation. Someone who is of them, and for them.”