Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to President Barack Obama is seen in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
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: Why is the Obama Administration focusing on Africa now?
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: How does today’s Africa compare to the Africa of yore?
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.
NewsOne: It is no secret that many Americans, in particular, only know indigent, tragic Africa. Why do Americans need to pay attention to the continent and understand what the modern Africa has to offer the United States?
VJ: Well, as the President said today, if we strengthen our trade relations with Africa, think of a small entrepreneur in the United States who manufactures something that we can help him sell to the African continent — 300 million middle class people who can buy goods and services from the United States. So that makes jobs back home, and at the same time, it is a two-way street and so, as Africans doing business with the United States, they, too, should get a kick by creating jobs here.
When I had a business roundtable in Senegal and Saturday in Johannesburg, there were American and African companies represented who are betting on Africa and investing in Africa, and creating jobs in Africa, and for the middle class population in Africa, they will buy goods here but they also buy goods from the United States.
And that’s how growth and investment occurs. And what the businesses said to me is the same thing I hear in the United States: They are looking for certainty, they are looking to reduce their risks, they are looking for the ability to invest over the long term and therefore they need predictability. That’s what democracies provide. That’s why democracy, investment, peace, and security — those are important pillars of the President’s strategy.
I think that what he gave the young people both yesterday at the roundtable and today at the speech was, by sharing his own personal story, and then his father was African, so we are not talking about ancestors, we are talking about his father who grew up in a village. His story is intertwined with that of Mandela with the goal of giving [African youth] not just hope but an understanding that it’s in their control, and that to me was the essence of his message: You, too, could be a President Mandela, because you live in a democracy , you are inheriting a democracy. So the fact that [Obama] was motivated to go in to politics when he was on a college campus, watching the oppression and discrimination here in South Africa…we are now a part of a global network, inexplicably linked to one another, and that should make everyone in the town hall, around Africa, the United States understand the power of the individual when they believe in the sense of community and mutual responsibility.
NewsOne: Do you think the Chinese have made some dubious investments in Africa that are not necessarily benefiting the African people?
VJ: It’s not for me to say, it’s for the Africans to say. And that was part of what the President was saying, we want to be a partner. We aren’t here to tell young Africans what to do. We have confidence that they will come to their on conclusion about what’s in their best interest. And that is a relationship that is built in mutual interest and mutual respect. So they should reach their own conclusions about everyone, including the United States.
NewsOne: Do you think that some of the autocratic governments in Africa (i.e., Zimbabwe and Uganda) are increasingly feeling the pressure to become a democracy when they see how countries, such as South Africa, Senegal, and Ghana, are advancing?
VJ: Only if they [autocratic countries] feel pressure from within. So one of the President’s messages was that ordinary people can effect dramatic change if they get involved and engaged.
In other words, you will have the country that you fight for!
So the people of South Africa, they bled in order to fight for a democracy, so they are leading by example, and that example is there for everybody to follow.
I want to say one last thing, when we look at the potential for the United States by President Obama coming here and talking about the potential of our relationship between the United States and Africa — it’s a very good investment that will pay an infinite fold. No one has really asked the question [about the relevancy of] the President going to Asia or going to South America or going to Europe. And this trip — as all of those trips — will strengthen the United States as leaders around the world, forge new partnerships, and create jobs back home, and that is a very good investment.