Obama’s Win: Why Some Africans Cared

Despite their own pressing problems, locals on the continent still take an interest in U.S. politics.

Simon Maina/AFP
Simon Maina/AFP

(The Root) — In the last few weeks before the U.S. presidential election, it seemed as if every time I opened my mouth, a South African stranger initiated a version of the same conversation: “Do you really think,” a woman said to me as I browsed through vintage couture at her Johannesburg shop, “that that idiot is going to win?”

And here I thought Americans were the ones who are supposed to be loudmouthed and opinionated. There is really no way to answer this question and come out unscathed. So I just fell back on the dumb-American stereotype. “I’m sorry; which idiot?” was my usual reply.

These days, South Africans are sometimes considered left of left. The Communist Party holds seats in Parliament. It’s no secret here that people love Barack Obama — and that seems to include South Africans of all backgrounds. City Press editor Ferial Haffajee even gave the U.S. president the highest praise one can possibly give in this country when she described Obama as “a bit like a Mandela for the 21st century.”

During such discussions, I have mostly managed to politely extricate myself with journalistic impartiality intact — and before my interrogator has the chance to give me grief about being from Texas. What I can’t figure out for the life of me is why people care about the election.

Over coffee the other day, a friend harangued me for half an hour about Mitt Romney’s stance on abortion, and his belief that a Romney victory would be catastrophic for women’s rights. Why, I wondered, would a 50-year-old man living in South Africa care about my future reproductive rights?

Romney and Obama, I noted, mentioned Africa the same number of times in their final debate: It was once each. Romney mentioned South Africa specifically — but in reference to apartheid. U.S. policy toward sub-Saharan Africa hasn’t substantially changed in a decade. And, I remind my African friends, there are plenty of domestic issues to tackle.

Plus, Obama didn’t mention Africa at all in his victory speech — unless you count the passing reference to “people in distant nations … risking their lives right now just for a chance to argue about the issues.”

Foreign Ministry spokesman Clayson Monyela was one of the many prominent South Africans tweeting madly on election night. That was quite a commitment, since it was election morning for South Africa. After the victory speech — during which he tweeted simply, “Damn! What a guy!” — I asked Monyela why people here care and why Obama is their man. He started with the obvious: “For Africans in general, not just for South Africans, there will always be this affinity towards him. He’s seen as one of them.”