What Pearls of Wisdom Does Michelle Obama Have to Share with South Africa's Youth?

By Fazila Farouk · 21 Jun 2011

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Picture: Tadias Magazine
Picture: Tadias Magazine

When I first heard that America's first lady, Michelle Obama, was coming to South Africa, I thought to myself, “There goes the news - column inches upon column inches are going to be wasted on the colour of her lipstick.” The fact that she’s America’s “fashion ambassador” already made the news in the run up to her visit.

Obama’s transformation from understated and perfectly well groomed woman to glorified clotheshorse has been disappointing to observe. Nobody begrudges her the opportunity she’s been given to transform her appearance, but in all fairness, she did take to the glamour rather more enthusiastically than one expected - openly relishing it and making fashion the hallmark of her role as America’s first lady. One expected a little more substance from a woman of her standing.

The official reason given for Obama’s visit to South Africa is that she’s in the country to talk to our youth about leadership and that she’s particularly interested in young women. This, I have gathered from media reports as well as questions that I personally had to field in a telephonic interview with a reporter from the Washington Post. 

Well, that’s the official reason for Obama’s visit, but I’d hazard a guess that the unofficial reason may have more to do with America’s domestic politics than it has to do with the country’s international relations.

It is well known that 2012 is a presidential election year in America when Barack Obama will be running for re-election. The dynamic duo, Mr. and Mrs. Obama appear to have divvied up the globe in pursuit of the ethnic American vote. 

Some weeks back, President Obama was in Ireland re-connecting with the Irish heritage on his late mother’s side of the family so he could build support for the Irish-American vote back home. Just last week he was in Puerto Rico courting the Latino vote. His wife’s visit to South Africa (and Botswana) seems a natural next step in their international campaign to bolster domestic support for his re-election next year, in this case, targeting the African-American vote.

The Obama’s are very good at marketing themselves. President Obama’s 2008 election campaign has even won a prestigious international advertising award for “best marketing campaign in history.” When it comes down to the brass tacks of his re-election, the Obama’s know what it will take to keep him in office. 

This time the Obama’s need to rally the support of the international community, as they’ve made such a mess of things back home. The so-called grassroots constituency that brought Obama to power is likely to stay away in droves next year, as the bold “change you can believe in” Barack Obama turned his back on them from his first day in office as America’s president.

It all started with him appointing Wall Street insiders to his team. Then he went a step further by making good on Bush era prescriptions to bail out the banks that caused the 2008 financial crisis in the first place. His grassroots constituency was left out to dry.

While the Obamas moved into the most sought after address on the planet - the White House - thousands of African-Americans lost their homes as a result of the sub-prime mortgage crisis caused by the banks that President Obama has been so cautious not to confront. His electoral support base, of course, thanked him for his lack of gratitude by staying away in droves from America’s 2010 midterm elections, which resulted in the Democrats losing the US Congress to the Republicans.

If Obama’s grassroots constituency does vote for him again, “Brand Obama” won’t be duping them so easily the second time round. This time they’ll be voting for the lesser of two evils in the Democratic Party’s battle against Republican rule. They’re well aware of this fact too.

In September last year during a televised public meeting, Velma Hart, an African-American mother representing the bedrock of his middle class support base, openly challenged President Obama to his face. She said, “Quite frankly I’m exhausted. I’m exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for, and deeply disappointed with where we are right now.” His mealy mouthed response is not worth elaborating on, suffice to say that it was hopelessly inadequate.

So what message is Michelle Obama going to share with ordinary, middle class and poor South Africans after her husband’s administration so clearly let down people of a similar class in America? 

What exactly is her message to the youth of South Africa going to be? “Pull yourselves up by your bootstraps?” As someone who epitomises the story of success built on sheer determination and hard work, it’s clear that she would be partial to individual endeavour.

But the America that she grew up in is not the America of today. Nor does either America come close to the fledgling democracy that is South Africa today.

Any young working class woman in Soweto comes up against a wall of challenges that Obama in her entire early life would never have encountered.

So how then does a young person contribute to our society when the conditions are far from what can be described as ‘enabling’, not only because of the shortcomings of the South African government, but quite significantly, also due to the foreign policy decisions of the Obama administration?

What has Obama got to say to the HIV positive youth in the ghettos of South Africa whose lives and future livelihood depend on our country being able to make access to anti-retro viral drugs universally available?

What is her response to the fact that the PEPFAR fund, a multi million-dollar AIDS fund initiated by George W. Bush, had its funding reduced for the first time in its seven year history under the Obama administration last year? The consequences of this decision are so dire for combating the HIV/AIDS pandemic in South Africa that the Treatment Action Campaign went as far as writing a letter to President Obama condemning it.

The saga continues today still. Just last week at the opening of the 18th International Aids Conference in Vienna, which drew participants from around the world, high-level aids activists were reportedly “raging at the Obama administration, while pining for the Bush administration.”

President Bush was a much better friend to the HIV infected youth of South Africa than the Obama’s can ever claim to be.

And what about the masses of unemployed youth in South Africa? The most crippling crisis facing the youth of South Africa today is the challenge of unemployment. What exactly is the Obama administration doing to ensure their access to productive, secure and decent work? 

Well, in this regard, the Obama administration has once again failed the youth of South Africa (and the rest of the developing world too).

The Obama administration can take credit for taking “the development” out of the “development round” of trade negotiations at the World Trade Organisation (WTO), commonly referred to as the Doha round of talks. 

America, in particular, has been singled out for making unreasonable demands on emerging economies, which includes South Africa, to open up their markets to US products. To simplify a somewhat complex set of negotiations where the US is demanding tariff reductions from the developing world, which would allow American goods to flood these countries’ markets -- what this boils down to in the end, is that job creating sectors in South Africa are under threat from cheap and not infrequently subsidised American goods.

Of concern is the hypocrisy of the image presented by the first lady of America. 

While Michelle Obama has busied herself establishing an organic vegetable patch in the gardens of the White House, promoting home-based food production, the food crisis has ravaged many developing countries that have lost their ability to grow their own food, as imports have flooded in under current international trade rules. Subsidized American agribusiness with a propensity for flogging genetically modified products onto unsuspecting developing nations is one of the main culprits distorting agricultural trade between first and third world countries.

One of the defining features of our interconnected global economy is that decisions taken in New York and London reach deep into the lives, dreams and aspirations of ordinary folk in townships like Soweto. What’s new since the financial crisis of 2008 is that the young people in the developing world who've always been exploited and abused by the overlords of the global economy are now being joined by an army of youth in Europe from countries such as Greece and Spain where unemployment has crept up to unprecedented levels, resulting in street protests and riots – not unlike our very own service delivery protests.

However, unlike South Africa, the youth of Spain and Greece come from middle class families. They’re educated and have skills, but are unable to find jobs -- and the reason they can’t find jobs is through no fault of their own. The problem is the growing financialisation of the global economy that has undermined investments in job-creating sectors.

Together with his benefactors, President Obama, whose campaign was generously funded by Wall Street’s Goldman Sachs, has played an important role strengthening the financialisation of the global economy. Thus, what is sometimes referred to as “Casino Capitalism” has become the basis of the global economy.

This is what led to the financial crisis, the subsequent recession and a global decrease in jobs. Some 30 million jobs have been lost worldwide since the 2008 crisis (according to a co-authored International Labour Organisation report released in the latter half of 2010).

The jobs will continue to bleed until we address the fundamental issues that drive this unjust situation. The youth of the world, including our own in South Africa, will continue to face an uncertain future until the world is put on a different trajectory that respects the right of every human being to a decent life that offers a secure and decent livelihood. The struggle for employment does not have to result in a scramble for dirty, dangerous and demeaning work – the three D’s commonly associated with the work poor people are most easily able to secure, and which is largely the outcome of liberalisation policies promoted by the Obama administration.

In light of the above, it does seem somewhat fraudulent for America’s first lady to be prancing around the world telling young people to get involved in actively contributing to their societies. What pearls of wisdom is she carrying around in her purse to share with the downtrodden youth of South Africa and the world, while the policies of her husband’s administration ensure that these young people remain trapped in a life of destitution and servitude?

Its time political leaders, including their supportive spouses, realised that rhetoric ought to be matched by deeds that make a difference to the lives of ordinary people facing challenging realities.

Farouk is founder and executive director of The South African Civil Society Information Service.

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26 Jun

Loss of Jobs in SA

It would have made your article a little more believable if you had mentioned China when writing about reasons for job losses in SA. How many items ''made in the USA'' do you find in SA shops compared to items ''made in China''.

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4 Jul

Woman Bashing

There's nothing like listening to a self-righteous "activist" (whose greatest contribution to humanity appears to be a website) try to undermine a fellow woman based on her appearance. Instead of engaging with Michelle Obama's ideas, initiatives, or achievements, this writer focuses almost entirely on Obama's wardrobe, reproducing the very sexism she would probably claim to abhor. Then she tries to discount Michelle as a person by critiquing her husband's policies. Again, how sexist to reduce a woman to the actions of her husband. C'mon SACSIS - raise your level of discussion.

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