Brian Sokutu
Senior Print Journalist
3 minute read
21 Jul 2018
11:36 am

US Embassy ‘honoured’ Obama gave speech, but he is a ‘private citizen’ now

Brian Sokutu

US diplomatic staff in Pretoria – still without an ambassador – have confirmed they only provided assistance to the former president on security.

(FILES) This file photo taken on November 10, 2016 shows then US President Barack Obama and president-elect Donald Trump shake hands during a transition planning meeting in the Oval Office at the White House on November 10, 2016 in Washington,DC. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON

In the wake of The Citizen reporting this week that former US president Barack Obama was given limited support by the US Embassy in South Africa during his visit to give the centenary speech on Mandela Day, the embassy has responded and partly confirmed this.

While not outright denying that they were instructed by US President Donald Trump’s administration not to give Obama any assistance other than with security arrangements, the embassy said it was an honour for them to have witnessed Obama speaking in South Africa on such an important occasion, though they did so at a distance in their official capacity since he’s now a “private citizen” and was invited by others to the country.

Embassy spokesperson Cynthia Harvey confirmed to The Citizen on Saturday that Obama had only been assisted with security arrangements: “Former president Barack Obama’s visit to South Africa was a private visit by a former president. He was in South Africa as a private citizen. The US Embassy in Pretoria supported US agencies providing security for the former president.

“We are certainly honoured that the Nelson Mandela Foundation chose an American to be the speaker at their annual Mandela Lecture this year. The respect and admiration Obama had for Nelson Mandela is shared by many American leaders and citizens.”

The high-profile visit by the former president was mainly arranged and coordinated by the Nelson Mandela and Obama foundations. The scant assistance from the US Embassy in Pretoria was seen by some as a break from the diplomatic tradition of offering support to any visiting American leader.

None of the embassy staff played any role due to “instructions by Washington” that Obama should not be provided any assistance, according to a highly placed source at the embassy.

In the past, the embassy has always provided full support to any visiting American leader regardless of party affiliation.

Asked for comment this week, respected Wits University international relations visiting professor John Stremlau told The Citizen that Trump has “a penchant for pettiness and strange fixation with denigrating and dismissing virtually all actions by his predecessor”.

He added: “Trump rose to prominence on the lie that Obama was born in Kenya and hence was not legitimate. One should never underestimate how low he can go.

“But given how thin the embassy staff is, without an ambassador and several recent departures of lesser ranks, Washington would simply defer to the hosts.”

Failure to fill the strategic position of US ambassador to South Africa – vacant since the departure of Patrick Gaspard whose contract was not renewed a year ago by Trump – also pointed to Washington’s low regard for South Africa and the African continent as a whole, said Stremlau.

“Trump cares little about Africa.”

African leaders, he said, “along with everyone else interested in US-Africa relations – waited for months for the Trump administration to explain its Africa policy… and we aren’t there yet.

“Trump has called on African companies to invest in the US. Then, shifting to security cooperation, he urged Africans to help defeat Islamist extremists and the threat from North Korea,” said Stremlau.

Trump’s inaugural address to the UN General Assembly said “little about Africa – barely one paragraph towards the end. One sentence praised African Union and UN-led peacekeeping missions for ‘invaluable contributions in stabilising conflicts in Africa’.”

Trump is also remembered for having once described Africa as being host to many “sh*thole countries” – something that raised the ire of many African leaders.

Despite this year hosting Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari at the White House, Trump never retracted the statement that became a nightmare for US diplomats.

Gaspard, an Obama appointee, was known for having deplored Trump’s constant attacks on America’s fundamental values.