JOHANNESBURG – There was room for only one African-American first lady in the pages of an influential South African newspaper on Sunday; not Michelle Obama, but the first lady of daytime television, Oprah Winfrey.
The Sunday Times reported that 4,500 tickets had been “snapped up within hours of becoming available” to see her receive an honorary doctorate at a provincial college. The article included an excited comment from a school spokesman who told of the “electric” atmosphere on campus, ahead of Friday’s event.
The newspaper devoted ten paragraphs and a large photograph to a preview of Ms. Winfrey’s visit; yet the news pages made no mention of Ms. Obama’s week-long tour of South Africa and Botswana, beginning tonight.
WATCH MSNBC’S COVERAGE OF THE FIRST LADY’‘S VISIT TO AFRICA
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The visits of both women this week might help to illuminate two different aspects of black America’s evolving influence over Africa.
Certainly, there will be huge crowds and great excitement as Michelle Obama travels through South Africa, on a tour which is aimed at promoting youth leadership. There will, no doubt, be fascination amongst the public and local media as she meets school-children, and visits a museum which honors the memory of the country’s racial struggle. As a role model and a campaigner, she is hugely respected. But to many Africans, the draw of having an Obama in town is not what it was.
Despite the excitement surrounding the election of her husband in 2008, some have been disappointed by America’s first black president and his commitment to Africa. In many countries, there is quiet frustration that he has not done more to promote and support the continent. In some African capital cities, many feel let down and unloved. Since becoming president, he has only made one visit to sub-Saharan Africa. A government official in Kenya, where Mr. Obama has family roots, told me “we know that he is an African-American, but we see him as un-African… and too American”
The perception of Washington’s disinterest is exaggerated by China’s rapidly growing role here. It has embarked on what some call “an economic invasion”, increasing investment in the resource-rich continent and deepening political links. To the people of Africa, Beijing seems to be presenting itself as an alternative leader of the world.
But although many Africans are drawn towards China by economic realities, it is shared heritage and cultural tastes which cement black America’s still-considerable interest on the continent. Music, television and film remain fast-growing spheres of influence for the United States.
No one better represents that than Oprah Winfrey. To South Africans she is, arguably, the best-known celebrity in the world; her talk show remains one of the top-rated programs on television here. But most notably, she opened a “leadership academy” near Johannesburg for young women from the impoverished townships. She spent a considerable amount of her own time and money on the school, guided by former president Nelson Mandela. Through that project she more than anyone else has come to represent America’s Africa-friendly face. Many see her as being a descendant of the continent who chooses to “give back”.
That’s not to say that the first lady’s story does not inspire Africans. Her visit will rejuvenate some of the enthusiasm for “everything Obama” which has been eroded during his time in office.
But many people here believe that Michelle Obama’s husband might do well to follow Ms Winfrey’s example, by “talking up” the continent much more, and making new financial and political commitments to major African projects.