By Bill Saidi
MICHELLE Obama was reportedly “snubbed” by Jacob Zuma during an official visit to South Africa last year. Zuma himself did not meet her at the airport, but sent the Minister of Prisons instead. I am not entirely certain what the protocol is. The president is said to have sent one of his wives to meet Michelle Obama.
It was never made clear in the story which official in the US mission had used the word “snubbed”. For some observers of US-Africa relations, this seemed to be a reaction to Obama’s apparent reluctance to make too much of his relations with African leaders. Also, the SA president was said to have been annoyed when Obama called on African leaders to help end the civil conflict in Libya. Zuma was close to Muammar Gadaffi, the villain of the piece as far as the West was concerned.
Not all African leaders expected Obama’s policy towards Africa to be cosier than George W Bush’s. Yet there were others who expected Obama, born of a Kenyan father, to declare his foreign policy thrust would be largely pro-Africa. Yet soberer observers asked: how would the American people view this deliberate shift? But Michelle and the Obama children met the all-time South African icon, Nelson Mandela. Perhaps emboldened by his victory for a second term in office, Obama might more openly forge closer links with his father’s continent this time around.
This would happen only if he took the view of the magnanimous among African leaders that he was being utterly sensible. All his electors were Americans — Latinos, Hispanics, African-American or white. Their expectation is that he would look after their interests first, before anyone else’s. Africa is almost perennially in need of any help it can get. Its problems hinge on leadership — whatever the pan-Africanists say. There has been progress on the economic front, but strictly speaking, Africa still needs much help.
There is civil strife in many countries. Relations between states are not what they ought to be, with one nation threatening to march into another with the objective of “sorting them out” for daring to do this or that thing to their neighbour. Obama could be of some help, but his plate is full already. He has four years in which to fulfil his promises to the electorate. At the same time, he has to sort out the US relations with the second biggest economy in the world, the People’s Republic of China. That country’s communist party held a crucial summit around the same time as the US presidential election — selecting their leaders for the next 10 years. China may have moved away from the political straitjacket of Mao’s period, but there is hardly any aspect of its politics resembling a democratic dispensation.
The people, in general, have very little say in who leads them. Incidentally, the communist party is the only party in the country. All is still being decided by a small group of people. They are extremely influential and, apparently, many of them are corrupt into the bargain. Corruption in high places was one of the key subjects debated by the delegates to the conference. A recent nasty incident involved a prominent member of the party leadership whose wife reportedly poisoned to death a British citizen with whom the couple had been having a financial relationship.
It is alleged the wife killed the foreigner by poisoning him in a hotel. Most people would say these sort of grisly incidents happen more in the West than in a country like China. But China is catching up with the West, in a manner of speaking. This could be good for Obama. For China, it could be another story — the seeds of another cultural revolution. Mao must be turning in his grave. All countries with very strong economies have to contend with an equally potent element of corruption among its leaders — the success attracts the corrupt the way cockroaches are attracted to decay and dirt.
- Bill Saidi is a writer based in Harare.