'One of Us' Africa Has High Hopes for Barack Obama

People across the continent of Africa are ecstatic about the election of Barack Obama as America's next president. But many also have high expectations after eight years of neglect under the Bush administration.
Von Karl-Ludwig Günsche

Mpumi Mantangana still can't believe it. "It is fantastic that he won," she says over and over. "He has made history for the blacks in America and for the rest of the African continent," she says, stretching geographical realities in her euphoria. But on this day, reality is secondary for Mantangana.

Barack Obama has many supporters in Kenya, like this man, but also across the entire continent.

Barack Obama has many supporters in Kenya, like this man, but also across the entire continent.

Foto: AFP

And it's not difficult to understand why. Mantangana is the purposeful manager of the Ubuntu Clinic in Khayelitsha, one of the poorest suburbs of Cape Town, South Africa -- and for her, Barack Obama's victory in Tuesday's presidential election in the US is a dream come true. "We are going to throw a huge party," she says.

Obama visited her shantytown clinic in August 2006 during his tour through Africa in order to see first hand the ravages that AIDS has wrought on South Africa and much of the rest of the continent. "He gave us courage," says AIDS activist Zachie Achmat. "Since then, we here in Khayelitsha have been passionate Obama supporters."

Obama's election has inspired hope from Cairo to Cape Town -- hope for a better future, for help and for understanding. His victory is their victory. "After all, he's one of us," says Frank Chikonga, one of hundreds of jobless waiting outside an employment office on Cape Town's Strand Street. "He has to help us."

Such voices can be found everywhere in Africa these days. So-called "man on the street" interviews from across the continent all contain the same almost naïve hope. "Now we are hopeful that things will change for us as well," Mohamed Shennawy told an Egyptian television station in Cairo. The Ghanaian journalist Kwaku Sakyi-Addo writes, “I never quite realized how difficult it would be to write about a day like this…Words flood my senses, yet none is fitting enough to describe such a day."

It's not just euphoria. For years, Africa has been promised help, and for years the international community has been slow to deliver. Many expect President-elect Obama to change that. Shamina from Malawi, for example, told Voice of America that "the African people are supporting him, so he should support us as well."

Her countryman Abdul-Azizi Kazembe was even clearer about what he expects from the new American president. "We are asking him to consider increasing the aid package offered to African countries, Malawi included," he told Voice of America.

Redeemer and beacon of hope -- these are the roles Barack Obama plays for the people of Africa. Indeed, Kenya has essentially adopted the new president-elect as one of their own. People in Kisuma, where Obama's Kenyan relatives come from, see themselves as something of an appendage of the White House.

But across the crisis-riddled continent, people and politicians hope that, after eight years of the Bush administration, Obama will reinvent US-Africa relations and that he will have an open ear for the myriad problems the continent faces: civil wars, tribal conflicts, epidemic diseases, malnutrition, poverty, a lack of opportunity, crime and corruption.

After his victory, South African freedom icon Nelson Mandela wrote Obama a letter in which he touched, between the lines, on his fears and hopes for his own country, which is in the midst of a deep domestic political crisis. "Your victory has demonstrated that no person anywhere in the world should not dare to dream of wanting to change the world for a better place," he wrote. "We trust that you will also make it the mission of your presidency to combat the scourge of poverty and disease everywhere."

In recent years, the African continent has been on the international community's agenda often enough -- at the G-8 summit in Heiligendamm, Germany in June 2007 as well as the European-Africa Summit in December of the same year. At each event, joint summit declarations made promises that were to be taken seriously, but nothing much happened in the end.

Indeed, the setbacks in Africa on its path to democracy and rule of law shake the West again and again. From Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe's desperate fight for power to the new bloody battles in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In most African countries the mentality still prevails today that the continent's problems are the ugly legacy of colonialism, and not every African country is going to go from being America's enemy to its friend because of Obama's victory.

For her part, Fazila Farouk of the South African Civil Society Information Service is celebrating Obama's victory. "Miracles happen when people no longer believe in them," she says. "Barack Obama has now proven that he is the miracle that the entire world has been waiting for." The unrelenting civil rights activist, also knows what she wants "the new hero" to do. "He has to finally admit to America's complicity in Africa's crisis areas." African politicians like Robert Mugabe are still extremely adept at deflecting blame for their own failures, for the hunger and suffering in their countries onto the West and trying to portray themselves as the victims.

But that time may come to an end now. One major Cape Town daily ran an editorial with a headline exclaiming Obama would bury the black victimhood role by "tomorrow."

Zimbabwean political scientist Blessing Chimbwanda is also taking advantage of Obama's election success to strike a self-critical tone. In an editorial in the Zimbabwe Times, Chimbwanda writes: "I could not comprehend Zimbabwe electing a white Zimbabwean as president of the country in 2023, regardless of that person's ability. I blame this on the hate language, and deeds that most of our African leaders have fed our population from the like of Idi Amin to Robert Mugabe and all the others in between."

Obama's success, Chimbwanda said, must now provide an opportunity for Africa to consider why, despite the fact that there are "some positive signs of democracy in parts of Africa, as a continent, our leaders have failed us dismally."

As soon as Obama won, a mobile phone text message spread across the Ghanian capital Accra like wildfire: "Rosa sat so Martin could walk, Martin walked so Obama could run, Obama ran so our children can fly!"

Rosa Parks was the American civil rights campaigner who in 1955 was arrested after refusing to give up her bus seat for a white person. Martin Luther King, who was shot in 1968, is one of the most respected figureheads of the civil rights movement. From Ghana the text message was fired out across the continent. And on Thursday, the South African Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Desmond Tutu left a religious service in Tygerberg Hospital, Capetown, with tears in his eyes.

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