CAPE TOWN, South Africa — President Barack Obama challenged Africa Sunday -- especially its young -- to build on the remarkable progress the continent has made by promoting democratic and honest government and a thriving middle class.
“There is an energy here that can’t be denied,” he said. “Africa rising.”
Obama acknowledged the immense changes that have transformed sub-Saharan African in recent years, speaking on the same campus where Robert F. Kennedy in 1966 delivered his Day of Affirmation speech about the spread of civil rights, and just hours after Obama took his family to see the prison that held Nelson Mandela in the days of apartheid.
But he cautioned that, despite freer societies and growing economies, much needs to be done to eradicate poverty, shed corruption and eliminate conflict.
“We know this progress…rests on a fragile foundation,” he said. “Across Africa, the same institutions that should be the backbone of democracy can all too often be infected with the rot of corruption.”
He pledged the United States would do its part, not by offering a handout, but by partnering with African governments and private companies to lure businesses to the continent. That would come in the form of a new $7 billion program to double access to electricity and continuing efforts to produce new food technologies and reduce illnesses including AIDS and HIV.
“We are moving beyond the simple provision of assistance, foreign aid, to a new model of partnership,”he said.
The goal, he said, is to boost a middle class that will benefit both the United States and Africa.
“This is America’s vision. A partnership with Africa that unleashes growth and the potential of every citizen, not just a few at the very top.”
Earlier Sunday, Obama, his wife and daughters toured Robben Island, where Mandela was held in a small cell for 18 of his 27 years in prison as a political prisoner under the white leaders who ruled the nation. Obama has been before but it was his family’s first visit.
"On behalf of our family we’re deeply humbled to stand where men of such courage faced down injustice and refused to yield,” Obama wrote in the guest book. “The world is grateful for the heroes of Robben Island, who remind us that no shackles or cells can match the strength of the human spirit.”
Obama later told the university audience that the anti-apartheid movement inspired Obama, then a 19-year-old college student in California, to first become politically active and give his first speech, a 2-minute address that ended when campus security officers took him from the stage.
“Fortunately, there are no records of this speech,” he said to laughter.
“But I remember struggling to express the anger and the passion that I was feeling and to echo in some small way the moral clarity of freedom fighters an ocean away,” he said.
Obama, much like Kennedy before him, encouraged young Africans to take the mantle from their leaders, working to help nations and societies. He announced a program to bring 500 young leaders to Washington from Africa for training each year.
The voices of such past leaders as Kennedy, Mandela and Gandhi, he said, “stand as a challenge to your generation because they tell you that your voice matters.”
The first family departs South Africa for Tanzania Monday, where Obama will speak at a power plant about his new initiative to increase electricity across Africa. Six nations -- Tanzania, Nigeria, Liberia, Kenya, Ghana and Ethiopia -- will kick off the program with the goals of providing power to 20 millions.
Roughly two-thirds of the population of sub-Saharan Africa doesn’t have access to electricity. It’s 85 percent in some rural areas.
The $7 billion in money and resources will come from USAID, which will provide technical assistance and grants, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, and the Export-Import Bank.
“I think the way to think about this is that we’re not looking to provide assistance so that we can pay for everybody to turn the lights on,” said Gayle Smith, senior director for development and democracy at the National Security Council. “We’re looking to provide support and partnership so the lights can turn on and stay on.”
Obama also may appear together in Tanzania with former President George W. Bush, who has been active working against AIDS, cancer and malaria in Africa. Michelle Obama already plans to appear at an event with Laura Bush and African first ladies.
Obama announced he will hold a first-of-its-kind summit of leaders from across sub-Saharan Africa in the United States next year.
“This is something that we’ve never done before. what we want to do is to continue the type of high-level engagement that we’ve had in this trip, we want to have that marker laid down so that next year the President is bringing together heads of state from across sub-Saharan Africa in Washington,” said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser to the president.