Obama greeted with mixed reception in South Africa

SOWETO, South Africa — The Globe and Mail

Protesters holding anti-Obama banners chant and dance together outside the University of Johannesburg campus in the Soweto area of Johannesburg, South Africa, June 29, 2013. Obama was speaking at a town hall for young African leaders at the university as part of his three-nation tour of Africa this week. (BRYAN DENTON/NYT)

U.S. President Barack Obama was given a hero’s welcome in a South African township on Saturday, but the frequent noise of police sirens and helicopters during his speech were a sign of the rockier road that he faces in many parts of Africa these days.

Outside the Soweto university campus where he spoke, police used rubber bullets and stun grenades to disperse a crowd of protestors, injuring at least one person.

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While Mr. Obama remains popular in the continent, polls suggest that his support has dropped as Africans become concerned about his foreign policies and his lack of personal involvement here. Before this trip, he had only made one brief visit to sub-Saharan Africa as president, a quick 20-hour stopover in Ghana in 2009.

Mr. Obama was careful to choose democracies when he planned his eight-day tour of Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania, but police violence is common even in Africa’s most democratic countries. While he told his audience about the police shooting of student protestors that sparked the Soweto Uprising in 1976, he seemed unaware of the clash between police and protestors that had erupted only an hour before his arrival in the township.

For security reasons, at least six helicopters have been used to ferry Mr. Obama and his entourage around Pretoria and Johannesburg on this visit. One of his helicopters clattered so loudly overhead in Soweto that he interrupted his talk to complain that someone should have told the helicopters to “quiet down.”

Africans have welcomed U.S. trade and investment, but are increasingly skeptical about U.S. foreign policies. The disagreements were evident at Mr. Obama’s press conference with South African President Jacob Zuma on Saturday, when Mr. Zuma criticized U.S. sanctions against Zimbabwe and the U.S. role in the Libya military intervention in 2011.

Mr. Zuma said the war in Mali this year was an indirect result of how the United Nations Security Council had bowed to Western nations that wanted to attack Libya. “The problems in the Sahel region arise primarily from the manner in which the UN Security Council handled the Libyan situation,” he said. “There are lessons to be learned in that episode…. Solutions that are African-led will be able to yield results.”

Mr. Obama responded by alluding to the three African nations, including South Africa, that were Security Council members in 2011 and had voted for the Libya resolution. Those that want a voice at the table must be willing to share the responsibility and even the blame for “difficult decisions,” he said.

Mr. Obama also faced questions about the growing strength of China and other nations that compete with the United States for influence in Africa. He said he welcomed China’s increasing investment here, but he also urged Africans to ask tough questions about whether China is hiring enough African workers for its construction projects in the continent, and whether it is tolerating corruption and exporting its profits out of Africa.

Another frequent question was why Mr. Obama chose not to visit Kenya, the birthplace of his father, on this visit to Africa. He said the timing was “not right” because Kenya was still “working on” its relations with the international community after it elected a president, Uhuru Kenyatta, who has been indicted on charges of crimes against humanity for his actions in 2008 during a wave of post-election violence.

Mr. Obama also traveled to a Johannesburg suburb on Saturday to meet the family of Nelson Mandela and pay his respects to the anti-apartheid icon, who is critically ill in a Pretoria hospital. He said Mr. Mandela was “an inspiration to the world” and “one of the greatest people in history.”