20/01/2017 14:54 SAST | Updated 20/01/2017 17:45 SAST

A Letter From A South African: You Weren't Perfect, But You'll Be Missed Obama

Some may say Bush's legacy in Africa outshines Obama's. But nothing can compare to the horror of Trump.

U.S. President Barack Obama

I remember watching Barack Obama's first inauguration in 2008. I was at the US consulate's house on a crisp Cape Town morning with other journalists and dignitaries and what struck me was the crying.

Not by the Americans. By officials of the South African government and other black South Africans.

After years of relentless war under his predecessor, Republican George W Bush, Obama's campaign was a revelation to those of us looking in from outside the most powerful nation in the world.

Here was a new brand of politics for Americans, so disarming, it brought us to tears. His fans believed anything could be done.

But the "Yes we can" magic of Obama's incredibly influential campaign faded a few years into his first term of office. There was no way he could sustain the international hype that was created around him. He was practically expected to solve world hunger, if not all the world's problems and that premature Nobel Peace Prize didn't help. Realism was always going to set in.

By the time his second term rolled around, a lot of South Africans including myself were downright cynical about the Obama presidency.

As I've written previously, it's hard to stomach the phrase "Yes we can" when directives to hope compete for space with reports of extrajudicial killings by unmanned drones in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, of deep incursions into our privacy, and spying on opponents — and allies — that makes Watergate look tame. Obama may have done well on many areas, from immigration reform to healthcare. But the expectation — giddy and unrealistic as it was in 2008 — was that he would not be caught dead continuing things such as the Prism programme and targeted drone killings.

In fact, Obama's administration proved to be incredibly secretive and controlling and his government's harsh crackdown on whistleblowers acting in the interest of democracy has had a horribly chilling effect on investigative journalism. He told an audience in Senegal during a trip to our continent that included South Africa that he would not be wasting jets going after a 29-year-old hacker. But that did not stop his administration with charging Edward Snowden under the deeply troubling Espionage Act. This is a World War 1-era piece of legislation that was used just three times on whistleblowers in the 90-odd years before Obama, but which has been used seven times by his administration in just his first five years to crack down on leaks.

But as his time as president drew to a close, the contrast with another Republican candidate is showing up what a good guy Obama ended up being after all.

Because Obama at his very worst was still infinitely preferable to the shock of Donald Trump taking over the reins — and the nuclear codes — at the White House.

As if to emphasise this fact, Obama did an about-turn on one of the darkest stains on his record: his treatment of whistleblowers. At the 11th hour just before vacating office he commuted Wikileaks whistleblower Chelsea Manning's 35-year sentence.

We are again reminded of the most pivotal fact of Obama's presidency: that a man and woman who looked a lot like us got to live in that White House and that a black man could occupy that office. It suddenly made a country notoriously hard on visitors who don't look like they quite belong a lot more palatable. First Lady Michelle Obama, a descendant of slaves living in a White House built by slaves, went a long way to making the space they occupied a lot more relatable.

Under Trump then South Africans must now contend with a man who has characterised our country as a "total — and very dangerous — mess" that was just "waiting to explode" in two of his infamous tweets. He has displayed a casual racism towards black people on numerous occasions. When he made his first speech detailing foreign policy he didn't mention a single African country.

Obama hasn't been the perfect president for South Africa. His predecessor, Bush, had a bad rep thanks to the war in Iraq but he was the most generous of American presidents to our continent, particularly in terms of aid for HIV/Aids and malaria. Under Bush, US funding played a crucial role in helping fund the supply and distribution of antiretrovirals in this country during the South African government's disastrous and fatal Aids-denialism, funding that was cut under Obama. Indeed, some may say Bush's legacy in Africa outshines Obama's.

But compared to Trump and what he represents, this is indeed a sad day for South Africans. Will we feel welcome visiting the US? Working and living there? Not to mention the policy changes.

Perhaps that's why, eight years later, there isn't nearly as much fanfare locally for Trump's inauguration tonight. The US embassy said they had no particular plans in place, ostensibly as there is no ambassador in place. It is a far cry from the festive mood eight years ago in a red, white and blue beribboned consulate with beaming US officials welcoming us. For South Africa too, watching Trump's inauguration and saying goodbye to Obama once and for all will be a sombre and sad moment.