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OPINION: Obama's good African story to tell

US President Barack Obama's historic address at the African Union headquarters on Tuesday was every bit as rousing as he intended it to be - inspiring yet cutting, easy-going yet contemporary. No bluster. Just Obama being Obamaesque. Thabo Mbeki's I am an African speech was probably the last big oratory moment by a world leader that could inspire hope for the future and pride in Africa's heritage. In South Africa we no longer do big inspirational speeches - although some verbal Prozac is probably much needed in a country where people resort to being fed snakes and rats as succour in the face of increasing difficulties.

New employment data being released this week as well as the threat of massive job shedding in the mining sector brings home just how much South Africa's economic crisis is worsening. When President Jacob Zuma delivered the State of the Nation Address in February, he said the International Monetary Fund revised the gross domestic product (GDP) growth forecasts down to 3,5%, "the situation is more promising on the jobs front". He said Statistics South Africa employment figures for the last quarter of 2014 showed that jobs grew by 203,000.

But indications are that Stats SA's latest figures will show that the number of people out of work would have increased in the second quarter of 2015, with the unemployment rate expected to rise to 26.6%. Last week's announcement that Anglo American and Lonmin each plan to shed 6,000 jobs adds to the spiral of bad news.

This week's Cabinet lekgotla will have to discuss the poor economic performance and consider measures to counter the negative trend, particularly with the electricity crisis worsening and tourism figures falling.

But it is unlikely that the meeting will end in any big announcements that will be applauded or bring relief to the nation. In fact, South Africans seldom look to political leaders for meaningful interventions, big policy statements or even words on inspiration.

A speech like US President Barack Obama's at the African Union (AU) headquarters in Ethiopia on Tuesday can have the effect of a Prozac moment when people are searching for something visionary and inspiring, says Dr Saths Cooper, president of the International Union of Psychological Science. Part of the current feeling of hopelessness in South Africa could be attributed to the fact that we no longer have the big feel-good moments, like we did during the Mandela years.

Obama speaks to the African Union

Cooper said Mandela's release, his ascension to the presidency, the 1995 Rugby World Cup and winning the bid for the 2010 Fifa World Cup were all epic and defining moments in South Africa's history. Now the country is trapped in a "perpetual state of crisis". The endless cycle of corruption and incompetence scandals has created fatigue in the public mind. This is particularly true on Nkandla, Cooper says.

Corruption was one of the issues Obama tapped into in his AU speech, broadcast across the continent. He urged an end to the "cancer of corruption", saying that "Only Africans can end corruption in their countries".

"Nothing will unlock Africa's economic potential more than ending the cancer of corruption. And you are right that it is not just a problem of Africa, it is a problem of those who do business with Africa… But here in Africa, corruption drains billions of dollars from economies that can't afford to lose billions of dollars - that's money that could be used to create jobs and build hospitals and schools.

"And when someone has to pay a bribe just to start a business or go to school, or get an official to do the job they're supposed to be doing anyway - that's not 'the African way'. It undermines the dignity of the people you represent," Obama said.

Cooper says Obama has his moments of making great speeches that provoke a euphoric effect. In South Africa it is not just a problem of a lack of good orators, with nobody in the ANC or opposition parties particularly outstanding. "I don't know whether we have leaders of the moral suasion and authority to provide a distinct and new way forward," Cooper said.

He suggested that perhaps the only person with the moral authority and the ability speak truth to power throughout his life is less able to do so now due to ill health at his advanced age. Archbishop Desmond Tutu was admitted into hospital again on Tuesday with a recurrent but unspecified infection.

In the absence of good leaders in politics and society, South Africans have now resorted to chasing after saviours, Cooper said. This has led to the phenomenon of miracle and faith healing, where self-proclaimed religious leaders dupe masses of people into believing in miracle cures for their problems. The country has experienced some bizarre incidents recently where pastors have fed their followers grass, snakes and rats, made them drink petrol and sexually assaulted women as a form of healing.

Cooper said people in a state of desperation look for alternate solutions and therefore get-rich schemes are moulded using the name of God to exploit people's fears and despair. This is not unique to South Africa. Nigerian 'prophet' TB Joshua continues to draw crowds to his faith-healing synagogue in Lagos despite the deadly church collapse last year.

Obama, however, says there is a need for "new thinking" to bring hope and prosperity to Africa's people. He spoke of the need for better leadership on the continent, emphasising issues of education, women empowerment, the promotion of democratic practices, and denounced the propensity of Africa's leaders to overstay their time in power.

Obama cited Madiba's words: "To be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others," and went on to say: "Every one of us is equal. Every one of us has worth. Every one of us matters. And when we respect the freedom of others - no matter the colour of their skin, or how they pray or who they are or who they love - we are all more free. Your dignity depends on my dignity, and my dignity depends on yours. Imagine if everyone had that spirit in their hearts. Imagine if governments operated that way. Just imagine what the world could look like - the future that we could bequeath these young people."

Obama continued: "Yes, in our world, old thinking can be a stubborn thing. That's one of the reasons why we need term limits - old people think old ways. And you can see my grey hair, I'm getting old. The old ways can be stubborn.

"But I believe the human heart is stronger. I believe hearts can change. I believe minds can open. That's how change happens. That's how societies move forward. It's not always a straight line - step by halting step - sometimes you go forward, you move back a little bit. But I believe we are marching, we are pointing towards ideals of justice and equality."

His parting message on the African continent was: "As I prepare to return home, my thoughts are with that same young man from Senegal, who said: Here, I have met Africa, the [Africa] I've always believed in. She's beautiful and young, full of talent and motivation and ambition. To which I would simply add, as you build the Africa you believe in, you will have no better partner, no better friend than the United States of America."

A little indulgent perhaps but as this was probably Obama's last visit to Africa as US president, he was entitled to lay it on a little thick. It was also his homecoming tour, in which he declared that while he was a proud American, he was also "the son of an African". This was to show that he was vested in Africa's progress and development as its descendent.

While the speech resonated throughout the continent, it is unlikely to make any real impact on governance and African leadership. But maybe a rare feel-good moment was needed, if nothing else but to demonstrate that the child of an African can rise to the most powerful position in the world. That is certainly easier to believe in than the not-so-good story being told in our country every day.

This column first appeared on _ Daily Maverick. Go to www.dailymaverick.co.za for more comment and analysis._

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