Viewpoint : A word of caution to Obama [BBC]

Desmond Tutu, the first black South African archbishop of the Anglican church and veteran campaigner against apartheid, gives a lecture in London this week to mark the 75th anniversary of the British Council.

I make no apology for talking and writing, in the UK, about a foreign leader. But expectations of him are so high and attention worldwide is glued to his every step as he reaches the end of his first month in office. He is the story of the moment.

I am obviously referring to Barack Obama.

Three months ago as I watched the news that could define an era, I rubbed my eyes in disbelief and wonder. It could not be true that Barack Obama, the son of a Kenyan, was to be the next president of the United States.

During the previous administration's term, I'd been asked to suggest one unilateral magnanimous gesture or action that the incoming US president might make to counteract anti-Americanism abroad. I said that while there were clearly pockets of anti-Americanism around the world, this was definitely not a global phenomenon nor was it directed towards the American people.

What I certainly could attest to was substantial resentment and indeed hostile opposition to the policies of a particular US administration.

I contended, as I do now, that the two are quite distinct and separate.

An elucidating example dates back to the years of the anti-apartheid struggle. The Reagan White House was firmly opposed to applying sanctions against the South African apartheid regime, preferring what it described as "constructive engagement". Many of us were incensed by this policy and opposed it with every fibre of our being.

Black role models

I probably dismayed many people when on one occasion I was told of the latest Reagan rejection of our call for US sanctions against Pretoria. I retorted, out of deep exasperation, "The West can go to hell!" I was then Bishop of Johannesburg, and some thought it was decidedly un-episcopal language.

I was very angry toward the Reagan administration, but that did not make me anti-American. And that is the point, anger and resentment toward the policies of a particular administration do not necessarily translate into anti-American sentiment.

When I was nine or so, I picked up a tattered copy of Ebony magazine. I still don't know where it could have come from in my ghetto township with its poverty and squalor. It described how Jackie Robinson, a black man like us, had broken into major league baseball and was playing scintillatingly for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

I did not know baseball from ping-pong. That was totally irrelevant. What mattered was that a black man had made it against huge odds, and I grew inches and was sold on America from then on.

Remember the extraordinary outpouring of sympathy and concern after 9/11? That surely could not have happened, certainly not on such a vast global scale if people hadn't genuinely cared. Everywhere, virtually.

But what happened that all these positive warm feelings toward the United States were disrupted and turned into the negative ones of hostility and anger?

'Bully-boy attitude'

I never imagined in my worst dreams that I would live to see the day when the United States would abrogate the rule of law and habeas corpus as has happened in the case of those described as "enemy combatants" incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay. Or that I would hear an American government and its apologists use exactly the same justification for detention without trial, as had been used by the apartheid government of South Africa - a practice that the United States at the time condemned roundly, as was so utterly right to have done.

So, it was a devastating case of deja vu for some of us, thoroughly disillusioning.

The Bush administration managed to rile people everywhere. Its bully-boy attitude sadly polarised our world.

Against all that, the election of Barack Obama has turned America's image on its head.

On US election night last November, I wanted to jump and dance and shout, as I did after voting for the first time in my native South Africa on 27 April 1994.

My wife cried with incredulity and joy as we watched a broadcast of the celebrations in Chicago, after the election results came through. A newspaper here ran a picture of Obama from an earlier trip to one of our townships, where he was mobbed by youngsters. It was tacitly saying that we are proud he once visited us.


Because the Bush years have been disastrous for other parts of the world in many ways, Obama's victory dramatises the self-correcting mechanism that epitomises American democracy. Elsewhere, oppressors, tyrants and their lapdogs can say what they like and, for the most part, they stay put.

But ordinary citizens living in undemocratic societies are not fools; they may not always agree with US foreign policy, but they can see and register the difference between the United States (where people can kick an unpopular political party out) and their own countries.

Obama's election has been an epoch-making event that filled the whole world with hope that change is possible.

People everywhere identified Obama as the bearer of a new hope, someone who could electrify crowds with spellbinding oratory, galvanizing many out of their lethargy.

His election also said more eloquently than anything else that we black people are not God's step-children, despite so much evidence to the contrary. That whatever we attempt, we can do it, yes we can.

In the midst of this celebration, however, a word of caution is appropriate. In the first days after 9/11, the United States had the world's sympathy, an unprecedented wave of it. President Bush squandered it.

Obama too could easily squander the goodwill that his election generated if he disappoints.

Bridge building

For many of us, an upright US was a great inspiration in our fight against the iniquity of apartheid. I pray that President Obama will come down hard on African dictators, especially because they cannot credibly charge him with being neo-colonialist.

The US administration needs to reach out to other nations, build bridges, listen.

Obama and his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, have spoken of the importance of smart power and the role of cultural diplomacy in their foreign policy toolbox. The sounds and gestures coming from them are most welcome, but they must now carry through on these.

Keeping the relationships alive between different peoples, and the dialogue going in difficult times is essential. They pave the way for better times. In a world of increasing instability and mistrust and in the face of shared global challenges, we need to build understanding and collaboration between ordinary people, to forge the ties which can last a lifetime whatever is happening on the political stage.

We owe our glorious victory over the awfulness of apartheid in South Africa in large part to the support we received from the international community, including the United States and United Kingdom, and we will always be deeply grateful.

The British Council, where I will speak today to mark their 75th anniversary, worked with us during those years providing educational and cultural activities. These included training in the UK for 200 black South Africans and working with local groups on language teaching and reading in black primary schools. The British Council supported Nelson Mandela's work in reforming the post-apartheid diplomatic service and education system.

UK standing

And here I must comment on the UK government's role as the US's biggest ally this past eight years, in particular in the war on terror. Your standing in the world has also suffered as a result of this close co-operation, although perhaps to a slightly lesser degree thanks to other more favourable actions in tackling climate change, interest in Africa's problems and campaigning on debt relief.

The problem today is that you don't have the redeeming Obama factor and although you perhaps don't come from such a low point, you don't have his advantage of international goodwill in restoring the UK's perception overseas.

Going forward, as we strive to create a stable, prosperous world for all, we need to work together with other nations for justice, equity and peace. We need to believe that the values of fairness and compassion are not only yours and mine; they are shared by all humanity.

Most of us do want to see peace.

And here I want to end with what seems so utterly obvious about what we learned from our particular situation in South Africa. Peace does not come from the barrel of a gun but is achieved when cultural differences are respected and the fundamental rights of all are recognised and upheld.

NBA reflects social changes [LA Times]

Last month, on Martin Luther King Day, just before the Lakers-Cavaliers game, LeBron James stood in front of a swarm of reporters, his light banter turning serious when the subject turned to this week's historic inauguration, and to the wise preacher whose struggle made President Barack Obama a possibility.

"It's not even about playing basketball on this day," James said. Martin Luther King saw "change before change even happened . . . saw the future before the future happened. . . . You talk about leaders in the NBA, but no leader in the NBA or any others sports can be compare to Martin Luther King or what he did for this world."

In 1968, when his life was cut short, such acceptance was still far off. A professional basketball team starting five African Americans would nearly be national news. When Martin Luther King was killed, only the Boston Celtics great Bill Russell, named Boston's player-coach in 1967, had reached that level. In that era, the notion of a black star such as Russell being used in a national advertising campaign would have been laughable.

Yes, Martin Luther King would have been well satisfied by the great progress of blacks in sport. But I'm guessing he would be just as pleased by the strong wave of globalism we're witnessing on our fields, stadium and courts. I say this because globalism in pure form is the idea that everyone on the planet is part of one tribe, helped form the foundation of Martin Luther King's philosophy.

"We are challenged to develop a world perspective," King said in a sermon at Washington's National Cathedral only days before his death. "No individual can live alone, no nation can live alone. . . . We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality."

Years before the Internet, Martin Luther King pounded at the point that as the world shrinks, we must pay stronger attention to how we treat our neighbours.

The sports world gives us that chance.

It's no secret, of course, that foreign players now have a big effect on the NBA, but sometimes we forget how profound that impact is. On Monday night, the Cavaliers' starting five included Serbia's Sasha Pavlovic and Brazil's Anderson Varejao. Usually it includes Zydrunas Ilgauskas, from Lithuania, held out by an injury.

The Lakers, meantime, started Serbian Vladimir Radmanovic and Spaniard Pau Gasol. These days in the NBA, roughly 20% of the league's current players are foreign-born and many more are on the way.

Much is made of basketball and the NBA being the near exclusive province of African Americans. Sadly, a guy like Canada's Steve Nash wins an MVP award, heads turn and some cry conspiracy. But the fact is, with each passing year, basketball becomes more a world game, its international players bigger and bigger stars. Wonderful. It may not be long before someone from Europe or South America or China is coaching an NBA team. It might not be long before a player with the brilliance of a LeBron James cruises through his prime years in Paris or Istanbul or Shanghai.

And here we return to Martin Luther King's vision, because it should not be forgotten that while he focused his energies on the plight of African Americans during the 1950s and 1960s, he always thought in deeper, broader terms.

King studied Gandhi, the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and many others from beyond our shores. While American culture tends toward the insular, he clung to the idea that there was an arc of justice that swept far beyond national borders (even out into the universe), and frequently reminded that all citizens of the world are connected in very real ways, which is partly why he opposed the war in Vietnam.

When I asked the thoughtful Lakers center Pau Gasol about King, he admirably focused on the progress made by American blacks since the civil-rights era. Ironically, it appeared that it was lost on one of our great global stars that Martin Luther King dreamed of days when the entire planet would begin coming together in new ways. A guy like Gasol (born in Barcelona, seasoned as a player in Memphis, and blooming into a global star in the shadow of Hollywood) is the very embodiment of this dream.

During the game, I watched Sasha Vujacic, a son of Slovenia, have a layup swatted away by Lebron James, a descendant of African slaves who is now one of the most recognizable figures in the sporting world. Vujacic retrieved the ball, stepped back, and launched a three-point jump shot: "Swish". The crowd rose as one, and let loose a thick current of cheers. I imagined Martin Luther King sitting next to me. I imagined a huge smile on his face.

MICHAEL JORDAN : Just enjoy it....


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