IN WASH­ING­TON, DC, WITH STARS IN OUR EYES

CityPress - - Front Page - MONDLI MAKHANYA

There was this de­press­ingly funny ar­ti­cle in the on­line pub­li­ca­tion Africa is a Coun­try (afric­as­acoun­try.com) last April.

“These days African heads of state are re­warded by [US Pres­i­dent] Barack Obama with a chance to meet him in groups of four and have their pic­tures taken with him. It’s like meet­ing Bey­oncé, but you get to call it a state visit,” the ar­ti­cle read.

The piece, pub­lished af­ter Obama met then Malaw­ian pres­i­dent Joyce Banda and Sene­galese leader Macky Sall, Cape Verde’s José Maria Neves and Sierra Leone’s Ernest Bai Koroma, lamented African lead­ers’ star-struck poses in the of­fi­cial pho­to­graphs.

“They beamed like com­pe­ti­tion win­ners. It was all very feu­dal ... You get the sense that they were given a nice White House tote bag, per­haps a signed copy of Dreams from my Fa­ther, and were then pat­ted on the head and sent off to in­con­se­quen­tial NGO-led round ta­bles. Pre­sum­ably the think­ing is that thus be­ing sprin­kled with all-Amer­i­can star­dust plays well back home,” writer El­liot Ross put it.

What made the ar­ti­cle even more hi­lar­i­ous (and de­press­ing) were the pic­tures of the happy Africans pos­ing with Obama. They all looked SO proud. ( Just Google it and see.)

This week about 40 African lead­ers jet­ted off to the US for jaw time and pic­ture op­por­tu­ni­ties with Obama. Yes, you read that right. Forty heads of state from a con­ti­nent went off to Wash­ing­ton to meet with the leader of one coun­try. Our very own Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma was also there. He and First Lady num­ber some­thing Nom­pumelelo Zuma got to pose with Obama and his wife, Michelle. Judg­ing by the grins on their faces you can be as­sured that the pic­ture will have a prom­i­nent place in one of the ron­dav­els in the fa­mous KwaZulu-Natal com­pound.

While the heads of state were meet­ing her hus­band, Michelle Obama, along with her pre­de­ces­sor, Laura Bush, en­ter­tained their spouses. They spoke some im­por­tant stuff about em­pow­er­ment of women and ed­u­cat­ing the girl child. The African first ladies took turns in pos­ing for pho­to­graphs with Michelle. In the evening there was a sump­tu­ous din­ner at the White House for every­one, and more pic­tures. The Africans were very happy. As vis­i­bly happy as coun­try bump­kins af­ter their first suc­cess­ful cross­ing of a green traf­fic light on the first visit to the city.

Yes, I know it may sound a lit­tle flip­pant and dis­mis­sive for this lowly news­pa­per­man to char­ac­terise the US-Africa Sum­mit as a photo op­por­tu­nity. A lot of good work was done. There was a $37 bil­lion (R396 bil­lion) worth of aid and in­vest­ment com­mit­ment from the US govern­ment and ma­jor cor­po­rates, and agree­ments to help deal with ter­ror groups and other man­i­fes­ta­tions of mil­i­tary in­sta­bil­ity. There were also lofty un­der­tak­ings on trade and devel­op­ment.

It is great that Obama seems to be tak­ing the con­ti­nent se­ri­ously and wants to leave be­hind a strong Africa legacy. There is also the ar­gu­ment that poor Africa can­not be a chooser when it comes to as­sis­tance and that the con­ti­nent’s lead­ers should ap­pre­ci­ate the fact that the world’s busiest man cleared his di­ary for three days to spend time with them.

But the whole thing was, quite frankly, de­mean­ing and spoke vol­umes about Amer­ica’s con­de­scend­ing at­ti­tude to­wards Africa and about Africans’ own in­fe­ri­or­ity com­plex. When­ever Obama or any of his pre­de­ces­sors have wanted to en­gage with lead­ers of other re­gions as a group, they have trav­elled to the sum­mits of the re­gional bod­ies and dealt with is­sues of com­mon in­ter­est at such fo­rums. But when it came to the weak and des­per­ate con­ti­nent, a flight to an African cap­i­tal was just too much trou­ble. The Africans had to come to Papa.

What is even more in­cred­i­ble is that the African lead­ers saw noth­ing wrong with this. The prospect of din­ner at the White House and shop­ping sprees for the spouses was too hard to re­sist. We should not be sur­prised at this though. The same has hap­pened in re­la­tion to some other pow­ers, most no­tably France. French pres­i­dents feel no com­punc­tion about “invit­ing” African lead­ers to Paris to dis­cuss African crises and the con­ti­nent’s devel­op­ment chal­lenges. When this call comes, the Africans waste no time in or­der­ing their pi­lots to rev the plane en­gines.

This lowly news­pa­per­man is by no means sug­gest­ing Africa should cock a snook at the likes of the US when they want to as­sist. The con­ti­nent has, af­ter all, spent the past few decades fight­ing to get pushed up on the for­eign pol­icy agen­das of world pow­ers, for a greater slice of the for­eign di­rect in­vest­ment pie of large com­pa­nies and for fairer trade prac­tices. So if en­gage­ments such as this week’s sum­mit in Wash­ing­ton help in this re­gard, then hal­lelu­jah to that.

But Africa has also been fight­ing hard to be treated as an equal and not like the pitiable fam­ily down the road that every­one hands last night’s left­over sup­per to. In en­gag­ing with Western pow­ers, African lead­ers must main­tain a mod­icum of dig­nity and not al­low them­selves to be treated like that.

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