Eva and Stanley. © Charlotte Boitiaux/FRANCE 24
© Charlotte Boitiaux/FRANCE 24

Despite protests elsewhere, many locals in the township of Soweto have been looking forward to the arrival of Barack Obama, who was due to visit the nearby University of Johannesburg on Saturday to meet with South African students and entrepreneurs.

By Catherine VIETTE (video)
Charlotte BOITIAUX , reporting from South Africa (text)

The noise is deafening, the smell of burnt food overpowering. It is 10 am on Saturday, June 29, and already Bara, Soweto township’s largest market, is in full swing.

Just a few hundred metres away lies the Soweto campus of the University of Johannesburg, where US President Barack Obama is expected to make an appearance later in the day as part of his first ever visit to South Africa.

The voice of James Blunt rings out from an old CD player sitting on the pavement and resonates around the market stalls.

“An American singer for the arrival of an American,” says the CD player’s owner, Edward, though Blunt is actually British.

“I know that the US president comes to us today, I’m happy,” he says as he sits cross-legged in front of a pile of clothes which he sells for 20 rand (1.50 euros) apiece.

‘He is an African’

Edward is just one of many locals looking forward to Obama’s arrival and the economic rewards it could bring for the region.

“If you see him, tell him to come here with even more business,” says Stanley, a 78-year-old South African wearing a black cap to shield himself from the sun as the day begins to warm up.Standing next to him, his friend Eva is also looking forward to the President’s visit.”We need jobs, and that’s something he can provide,” she says with a laugh.

There is also a sense of pride among some South Africans at welcoming the first ever black US president to their country.

“He is an African” says Petruce enthusiastically, speaking in Zulu while handing out flyers for his stall where he sells DVDs at 10 rand (75 cents) each.

“I think he treats people well, he is a man of peace like Mandela. Economics is fine, but respect for human beings is better,” he adds.

Mandela has spent the past three weeks in a Pretoria hospital where his health is said to be in a critical condition. But for both Petruce and Eva, there is no sense that the timing of Obama’s visit is in any way disrespectful.

“Life must go on,” says Eva, “I do not think Mandela would have wanted us not to give him a warm welcome, he wouldn’t have liked that.”

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Barack Obama to face protests in South Africa after years of laissez-faire

Trade unions, students and Muslim groups are among those determined to give the US president a bumpy landing

Barack Obama meets Desmond Tutu during a visit to South Africa in 2006

Barack Obama, then a rising Democrat senator, meets Desmond Tutu during a visit to South Africa in 2006. Photograph: Obed Zilwa/AP

Symbolism will hang heavy this weekend when Barack Obama visits Soweto, the cradle of South Africa’s black liberation struggle, and Robben Island, the prison where Nelson Mandela, who remained in critical condition in hospital last night, languished for years, plotting his nation’s rebirth.

Obama should not expect red-carpet treatment from all South Africans, despite the historic affinity between the civil rights and anti-apartheid movements. Workers, students and Muslim groups are among those determined to give Obama a bumpy landing when he descends on Africa‘s biggest economy.

“NObama” is the cry from the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist party, which have called for “all workers” to join mass protests including a march on the US embassy in Pretoria on Friday.

Academics and students have vowed to boycott the University of Johannesburg’s award of an honorary law doctorate to Obama. The Muslim Lawyers’ Association has called for the president to be arrested as a war criminal.

While these may appear fringe group stunts that US presidents face all over the world, South Africa is an unusual case. Cosatu and the Communist party form a “tripartite alliance” with the governing African National Congress (ANC) and expect to be heard. Cosatu in particular, with 2.2 million members, is central to the ANC’s election machinery and well rehearsed in mobilising demonstrations that have been known to turn violent. The secretary general of the Communist party, Blade Nzimande, doubles as the country’s higher education minister and the ANC has plenty of self-professed communists and Marxists with a flair for anti-western rhetoric.

Obama is a target for those who prefer to blame South Africa’s malaise of inequality and joblessness on global capitalism rather than the ruling ANC.

Bongani Masuku, Cosatu’s international relations secretary, said: “Obama is perpetuating American foreign policy. The US is an empire run on behalf of multinational companies and the ruling class of America. US foreign policy is militarising international relations to sponsor and make their own weapons.”

Many in Africa had impossibly high hopes for Obama, the son of a Kenyan. But Masuku added: “I’m not disappointed because I didn’t expect anything. It’s not about the individual; it’s not about the race he came from. It’s about the class he represents. It’s like he’s the gatekeeper for white monopoly capital. He promised things we knew he wouldn’t be able to do.”

Guantánamo

That view is not confined to militant union organisers but extends to some members of the revered struggle generation. Denis Goldberg, who stood trial with Mandela in 1963-64 and was sentenced to life in prison by the apartheid regime, said: “I don’t like the idea of Guantánamo Bay; I think this is reprehensible.

“The unending assumption of depending on Chinese credits to finance your wars elsewhere – I think it’s outrageous what’s going on. I don’t have final answers but we need to ask questions of the big powers – all of them.”

Such is Cosatu’s influence on the ANC that its attacks on the US – from Palestine and Guantánamo Bay to the “ruthless and savage looting of our natural resources” – have sparked warnings of a diplomatic rift.

Ian Davidson, shadow international relations minister for the opposition Democratic Alliance, said: “This is President Obama’s first state visit to South Africa and is a significant event for the country to further our relations with the United States. It should not be blighted by Cosatu’s cheap political-point scoring. This move by Cosatu is an embarrassment to South Africa.”

On the surface, US-South African relations are cordial and have improved since the presidencies of George Bush and Thabo Mbeki, though Washington’s intervention in Libya alienated many here. But while many young South Africans were caught up in “Obama-mania” five years ago, those with longer memories bitterly recall Ronald Reagan’s failure to oppose apartheid.

Tom Wheeler, a former South African diplomat who began work in Washington just before the Kennedy assassination 50 years ago, said: “There’s a gut anti-Americanism and anti-westernism that lurks in some of the communities. It may be a hangover from the days when a lot of ANC people travelled to the Soviet Union, and America was regarded as the great colonialist.”

A demonstration is planned for the University of Johannesburg’s Soweto campus on Saturday, where the president will meet young African leaders in a “town hall” event.

With first lady Michelle and their daughters, he will then travel to Cape Town to visit Robben Island and meet retired archbishop Desmond Tutu, never shy of speaking his mind on western warmongering.

Mandela

Perhaps the only living South African more famous than Tutu is Mandela. Obama has met him once, in a Washington hotel in 2005. The prospect of the first black US and South African presidents coming face to face is a spin doctor’s dream, but could backfire if the ailing Mandela is seen to be exploited.

Goldberg, 80, said: “I think it would be such an intrusion on an old man who’s ill. We exploit Nelson Mandela and I object to that. We need to respect this great man’s privacy because people go to see Nelson Mandela not to support Nelson but to gain support for themselves, and this is exploitation.”

Speaking from Washington, Ben Rhodes, the White House deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said: “While we’re in South Africa, we are going to be very deferential to the Mandela family in terms of any interaction that the president may have with the Mandela family or with Nelson Mandela.

“Ultimately, we want whatever is in the best interest of his health and the peace of mind of the Mandela family. And so we’ll be driven by their own determinations in that regard.

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DETROIT FREE  PRESS

Anti-Obama protests dispersed by South Africa police

An Anti Obama March Is Held Ahead Of The President

Anti-American demonstrators march through the streets while protesting against the official visit of U.S. President Barack Obama June 28, 2013 in Pretoria, South Africa. Organized by the Congress of South African Trade Unions, about 800 people marched through Pretoria to voice their opposition to Obama and U.S. policy in South Africa and around the world. / Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Anti-American demonstrators march through the streets while protesting against the official visit of President Barack Obama June 28, 2013 in Pretoria, South Africa. / Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

JOHANNESBURG — Police fired rubber bullets and a stun grenade into a crowd of hundreds of protesters waiting for President Obama to arrive at the University of Johannesburg on Saturday.

The crowd quickly scattered as police officers walked up the street pushing protesters away with shot guns.

“I feel my rights are being infringed,” said 24-year-old Bilaal Qibr, who was at the protest. “We can’t protest anymore. Personally, I feel like this is an extension of the U.S.”

Protests have been planned at the university over Obama’s visit and the news that he is expected to receive an honorary doctorate when he speaks later Saturday.

“They don’t believe Obama deserves that award. The U.S. position and its relationship with Israel has created a problem,” said Levy Masete, president of the Student Representative Council. “The students say, ‘Stop the oppression in Palestine,’ and you want to honor this man who is making this oppression possible.”

“He’s here for our African resources,” said Nomagugu Hloma, 19, a student at what she called the “sell out” university. “Hands off our gold, oil, diamonds and land,” she said.

South Africa’s biggest trade union, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) also said they would be protesting, while the Muslim Lawyers Association called for the president’s arrest for war crimes.

“I’m disappointed with President Obama,” said Putase Tseki, the COSATU chairman of Gauteng province in Johannesburg. “He promised he would (change) his foreign policy, he was going to resolve Palestine and close Guantanamo. I would say I was positive four years ago, but now I don’t know.”

The “feeling of being let down” helped stem the protests, says William Beinart, an African studies professor at Britain’s University of Oxford.

Anti-American demonstrators dance and sing before marching through the streets to protest against the official visit of U.S. President Barack Obama June 28, 2013 in Pretoria, South Africa. Organized by the Congress of South African Trade Unions, about 800 people marched through Pretoria to voice their opposition to Obama and U.S. policy in South Africa and around the world. / Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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