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Patrick Bond: South Africans plan protests over Obama administration’s funding of African dictators, revelations of NSA spying and economic agenda

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

President Obama will be traveling to Africa this week, making stops in Tanzania, South Africa, and Senegal.

To talk more about this we are now joined by Patrick Bond. He’s the director of the Centre for Civil Society and a professor at University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. And he’s currently in Johannesburg.

Patrick, thank you for joining us.

PATRICK BOND, DIRECTOR, CENTRE FOR CIVIL SOCIETY: Great to be with you again, Jaisal.

NOOR: So, Patrick, President Obama will be visiting South Africa on this current trip he’s going to make this week. What kind of greeting are South Africans preparing for him?

BOND: Well, it’s a complicated time, with the potential funeral, as hard as that is to say, for Nelson Mandela and also protest. There’s also a lot of friction between the United States and the South African government, trade relations, and the ways in which the multilateral institutions, especially the IMF and World Bank, as well as the United Nations Security Council. These are some of the topics.

But I think when Obama arrives on Friday, he’ll be in Pretoria, the capital, and there will be demonstrators from the African National Congress’s partners. The ruling party has partners in the trade unions, in the Israeli BDS, the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement, amongst the Communist Party and many other groups, student groups especially. And they’re protesting Friday in Pretoria by marching to the United States embassy. And then on Saturday, where Obama is due to receive an honorary degree at the University of Johannesburg, another protest in Soweto at the UJ campus will greet him.

And these are important, because I think on a few occasions South Africans have led the world in protesting what had been considered off-limits figures like Obama. I know that Berlin protested when he came recently, saying his security and surveillance state represented Stasi 2.0. But I’d go back to 2001, just before the 9/11 attacks, when at the World Conference against Racism 10,000 people protested the United Nations, and the year after about 30,000 protested the World Summit on Sustainable Development–two big UN conferences. So I think the South African protesters are ready for a match, Barack Obama, who should otherwise be given some sort of welcome deserving of a man who is half African.

Jaisal, the protesters are angry about a variety of what they claim are Washington’s crimes here in Africa, including tyrants getting drones, particularly in the case of Uganda, military aid to a variety of these dictators. But I think of interest as well is the concern that all the internet traffic going through the United States is now being monitored, as we know from the scandal at the NSA. And I think as well the traditional aspects of solidarity that South Africans have felt strongly about, such as the Cuban Five–the Communist Party campaign here strongly for their release–and there are a variety of other concerns that Obama had the chance, had the opportunity to reverse imperialism in Africa and instead has amplified it and through his own African heritage has tried to legitimize that.

NOOR: And how have perceptions of President Obama changed since his first term began, in Africa and especially in South Africa?

BOND: It wasn’t long into his first term. You may remember, Jaisal, that he was in Ghana at the major sort of democracy speech, a chance to put his imprint. And since then, pretty much everything he’s done has been against democracy. You can recall that two years after that, he and his secretary of state, then Hillary Clinton, defended Mubarak, the dictator of Egypt, and has gone on to defend other brutal rulers. In fact, it’s often said that if you simply open your vaults with minerals, with petroleum, if you work with Washington against al-Qaeda, then you get the U.S. seal of approval and a photo opportunity with Obama. So quite a number from of tyrants from the continent have gone through the White House and been celebrated. And Obama’s done very, very little to support progressive civil society and its demands. And indeed, because under his reign the Bush administration’s AIDS policy, which was to give money, initially, for branded medicines and for generics, that’s been rolled back, and that’s one of the victims of Obama’s budget cuts, the PEPFAR program. And so there have been protests against Obama in South Africa and in the United States for that.

So I think it’s a mixed feeling, because President Jacob Zuma, now under a great deal of pressure at home with a lot of discontent and the economy in deeper and deeper trouble, needs to have the confidence of meeting with the world’s most powerful politician. And the big question is whether this may turn into quite an embarrassment, or indeed worse perhaps a tragedy in which the visit really becomes little more than Obama attending the funeral of the late Nelson Mandela when he passes away.

NOOR: So, Patrick, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) was launched 12 years ago. What’s going to be the significance of Obama’s visit in relation to this 12-year-old agreement?

BOND: Well, it’s a good question, Jaisal, because the African Growth and Opportunity Act is one of the ways in which the United States endorses liberalized economic activity, as well as through many other bilateral deals. And NEPAD was meant to be, in the Thabo Mbeki years, the effort by South Africa to gatekeep for the continent and to run a great deal of aid [incompr.] $64 billion a year through a Pretoria office. The Bush administration actually endorsed NEPAD with its main Africa State Department official, Walter Kansteiner, calling it philosophically spot on. And this was meant to open the gates to vast U.S. investments.

It–instead, over the subsequent 12 years, the Chinese have been the major investors [incompr.] South Africans in the continent of Africa, and India’s coming up, much of it in the form of mineral extraction, and to some extent land grabbing. So indeed it looks like what at one point was the South African effort to channel funding and to control more of the continent because it failed and partly because it was a little bit too neoliberal for the conditions on the ground in Africa. So multinationals weren’t really quite ready to invest without major subsidies in risky areas. It was indeed instead the Chinese that have come in to–and I think Barack Obama’s very conscious of that, and his officials have gone throughout Africa, as the WikiLeaks State Department cables have shown, trying to wean off many African states from their relationship with Beijing. And that’s become much more important with BRICS, where in Durban in late March, China, as well as Russia, India, and Brazil, were all attempting with South Africa to figure out how to get it back together that would facilitate BRICS corporate investments on the continent. And I think Obama needs to be seen to be offering something of a prize so that Jacob Zuma will look back to the West, not to the East.

NOOR: Okay. Patrick Bond, thank you for joining us.

BOND: Thank you.

NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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