Soweto welcomes Obama, ‘a man of peace like Mandela’
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Despite protests elsewhere, many locals in the township of Soweto have been looking forward to the arrival of Barack Obama, who was due to visit the nearby University of Johannesburg on Saturday to meet with South African students and entrepreneurs.
, reporting from South Africa
The noise is deafening, the smell of burnt food overpowering. It is 10 am on Saturday, June 29, and already Bara, Soweto township’s largest market, is in full swing.
Just a few hundred metres away lies the Soweto campus of the University of Johannesburg, where US President Barack Obama is expected to make an appearance later in the day as part of his first ever visit to South Africa.
The voice of James Blunt rings out from an old CD player sitting on the pavement and resonates around the market stalls.
"An American singer for the arrival of an American," says the CD player’s owner, Edward, though Blunt is actually British.
"I know that the US president comes to us today, I'm happy," he says as he sits cross-legged in front of a pile of clothes which he sells for 20 rand (1.50 euros) apiece.
‘He is an African’
Edward is just one of many locals looking forward to Obama’s arrival and the economic rewards it could bring for the region.
"If you see him, tell him to come here with even more business," says Stanley, a 78-year-old South African wearing a black cap to shield himself from the sun as the day begins to warm up.
Standing next to him, his friend Eva is also looking forward to the President’s visit.
"We need jobs, and that’s something he can provide," she says with a laugh.
There is also a sense of pride among some South Africans at welcoming the first ever black US president to their country.
"He is an African" says Petruce enthusiastically, speaking in Zulu while handing out flyers for his stall where he sells DVDs at 10 rand (75 cents) each.
"I think he treats people well, he is a man of peace like Mandela. Economics is fine, but respect for human beings is better," he adds.
Mandela has spent the past three weeks in a Pretoria hospital where his health is said to be in a critical condition. But for both Petruce and Eva, there is no sense that the timing of Obama’s visit is in any way disrespectful.
"Life must go on," says Eva, "I do not think Mandela would have wanted us not to give him a warm welcome, he wouldn’t have liked that.”
‘We like him but he should come back another time’
Just the day before, however, around 300 demonstrators took to the streets of Pretoria to voice their disapproval of Obama’s visit, with many feeling that now is not the time for business deals and economic negotiations.
“The people are at Mandela’s bedside, they don’t want to see Obama landing with his money and arrogance," says Boitumelo, a student and member of the South African Communist Party.
"We like him but he should come back another time,” added her friend Becky.
Others have been more outspoken in their criticisms of the US president, some even comparing him to a “terrorist”, a term that was assigned to Mandela during apartheid.
“He is the opposite of Mandela, a man who makes war and promised to close Guantanamo but did nothing,” says Nizam Omar, a South African involved with the Palestinian cause.
Though Obama will not be visiting Mandela in hospital, he did meet with the anti-apartheid hero’s family on Saturday. The US President, who left Senegal on Friday, will spend a total of three days in South Africa as part of a week-long trip to the continent.
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