After President Barack Obama delivered his historic Africa address at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, NewsOne got the opportunity to speak with Senior Advisor to the President Valerie Jarrett in order to gain further insight in to the President’s plans with Africa and ascertain why the world needs to pay attention to the continent right now.
NewsOne: Could you tell me why Africa, why now for the Obama Administration?
Valerie Jarrett: Well, at the beginning of the President’s second term, we thought it was very important to change the paradigm and the relationship between the United States and Africa. That’s what he did at the beginning of his first term, when he visited Ghana. So we wanted to come back and make new commitments. Like [on Sunday], for example, we announced Power Africa, where we will make a major investment of billions of dollars that will help expand the power of Africa. If we do that, it will unleash so much potential that is just sitting there to be harnessed.
We spoke with so many people in the private sector and they want to invest in Africa; they see the potential. Africa is the next continent to experience enormous expansion that will create jobs — not just in Africa but also in their trading partners, including the United States.
[Sunday] was a very emotional day for President Obama, if you could imagine. To be of African [blood]…not just the fact that his father’s from Africa — to return as President of the United States at a time, poignantly, when President Mandela is so extremely ill, and then to go and see again the cell that he occupied and take his children and his wife there…and experience this…very emotional moment with people he loves the most and then address a group of young people; he loves talking to young people. And to try to help inspire them the way he was inspired by Mandela so long ago when he was in college. It was a very extraordinarily moving day — one that I will never forget.
NewsOne: What’s different about Africa now?
VJ: So many countries in Africa have gone through transformation. When you talk about South Africa, just in the space of the last 22 years, you’ve seen President Mandela go from being a prisoner on Robben island to president of a country overseeing its transformation for democracy.
The President said [on Sunday] that democracy is so fragile because it is still so new, but it is transformative. When you speak to so many South Africans, they are so committed to the basic principles of democracy. They are willing to fight and sacrifice, and [fighting for their rights] is so recent that they know people in their families and their communities who were imprisoned and tortured and sacrificed so recently for this opportunity.
So I think that part of the energy comes from the proximity of time. They haven’t had the time to become complacent or take anything that’s happening in South Africa for granted, because it happened in their lifetime, and then you couple that with the fact that so many people in South Africa and Africa are young and they are inherently energetic and enthusiastic, so the potential they can unleash is enormous.
Like the President said, The United States doesn’t want to be the only one to invest in Africa. It is important for Africans to ask the questions: “What are you getting out of this?” “Are Africans being put to work?” “Are they being given jobs?” Or is it simply the extraction of wonderful minerals from Africa and then going somewhere else? Are Africans owning the companies and partnering with the companies that are benefiting? Is there corruption? Or is there transparency and honesty so that the African people are actually benefiting – not just those in a position to benefit from the corruption.
The President chose Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania — these are all countries that have democracies and even expanding those democratic institutions. even just focusing on trade and investment and opportunity.
Because, historically, Africa is seen as a place needing aid. Our aid dollars now are leveraging private sector investment. So rather than simply providing food, we are teaching and helping African companies to go in to agriculture so they can go in to their own capacity to manufacture X. We feel rather than give a man a fish, teach him how to fish.
And so if you look at that, you have the potential to 1) leverage private sector resources, and 2) fill capacity right here in Africa.