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Recession in US, not Africa’s woes, is Obama’s priority

Published date:
Thursday, 13 November 2008

Barack Obama can make a soaring speech, but can he run a country?

This is the other side of the anti- Obama campaign slogan – what has he done, what has he run?

What he has done, and that in resounding fashion, is to get elected in an election where two-thirds of voters went to the polls, the highest percentage since 1908 and high for the United States. He swept through Republican states, uniting the varied minorities behind him and getting the youth to vote.

Even if he did nothing else of any importance, the fact that he showed that the seemingly impossible is possible, that an African-American can be president, that values are important, has sent a message to the world: The US has moved beyond race, it is ready to reclaim the moral high ground it had lost under George Bush, it is truly democratic and open.

As he said in his acceptance speech, “It is not about our military might, it is not about our wealth, it is about our values”.

Renewal is in the air.

But, he will also have to deliver.

What he has promised during the election campaign is the only indication one has of what he proposes to do.

These promises include lower taxes for workers, higher taxes for the rich, universal healthcare, less dependence on oil imports while fighting global warming, pulling troops out of Iraq, putting more into Afghanistan, talking to the likes of Iran, and ditching unilateralism for multilateralism. He has to revitalise the American economy, co-operate with other countries to get the world’s economy going again, and create jobs as recession bites.

The list is long and daunting. It deals with, in his words, two wars, a planet in peril and the world’s finances in turmoil.

Africa does not feature.

His focus will be domestic initially and Africa will not be high on his priority list.

Just because his father is a Kenyan, does not mean that he will give more attention to this continent than to any of the other problems that are already on his desk.

Yet there is an element of his policy which should concern Africans and South Africans.

The US, under George Bush, has become South Africa’s biggest trade partner. And Obama, during his race against Hillary Clinton, made very protectionist noises when it came to the issue of free trade.

He may have had the North American Free Trade Association and China in mind when he said American workers had to be protected, but if this is a reflection of his thinking then this is a matter of concern.

It is a simple truth that Republicans favour free trade while Democrats are more reluctant on this issue.

This is important because the African Growth and Opportunities Act has opened the US market to African goods and it is vital that it is expanded and that it also continues beyond its cut-off date.

There is no sign that aid will suffer, yet the ability of the US to continue with its policies and programmes in this regard may very well be influenced more by the downturn in the economy than any change in approach by the new administration.

Diplomatically, it will be easier for South Africa to deal with an Obama America than it was with a Bush one. A Washington intent on multilateralism is by definition easier to deal with.

But Africa should not expect too much too soon from an Obama presidency – the recession his country faces will require all his attention.

The simple fact that Americans across the board voted for Obama has, however, lifted the spirit of people across the world – and certainly in South Africa. That in itself is a great achievement.

Harald Pakendorf is an independent political consultant. This article was written for Meropa Communications, Johannesburg

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