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July 1, 2013

Obama in South Africa: Political and Media Disconnect

Though the photo above — of Obama grimacing in a supposedly private moment before an international gaggle of news photographers while visiting Nelson Mandela’s prison cell — will be the one long remembered, I think the more striking image of his S. Africa visit is actually the one below.

It’s part of a NYT slideshow titled “Obama in South Africa” which ran on Saturday and documented Obama’s visit to that point. The photo shows South African riot police at the University of Johannesburg in Soweto suppressing demonstrators protesting Obama’s trade and human rights record.

Though you’d never know it by the media coverage obsessed with images like the Robbens Island visit and the larger personality politics of whether Obama would get to visit Mandela on his death bed, the South Africans are not all “hope addled” groupies of the first African-American U.S. president. If the photos of Obama’s “you are the future” pep talks –  the one yesterday at the University of Johannesburg, might give that impression — the view is hardly ubiquitous.

Certainly, it’s not the sense from still another slide from the same NYT slideshow reference above. This telling moment is from Obama’s press conference with the less charismatic or magical President Zuma, the two men biting their lips in encountering questions about myriad of differences between the two.

If anything, we need to understand these protest images in S. Africa more in terms of current and similar photos from Brazil and Turkey.  The public, in other words, is more sensitive these days to when they’re being patronized, and those South African protesters, in particular, seemed to feel that Obama is a lot more focused on his own geopolitical interests — specifically, matching (or, catching up to) China’s influence in Africa — than he is in theirs.

Perhaps what these protest and the political PR photos most –as the developing world cries out for more genuine and sophisticated recognition — is the profundity of the disconnect.

(photo 1: Gary Cameron/Reuters. caption: President Obama leaves the Robben Island prison cell of Nelson Mandela. “This man chose peace and reconciliation instead of civil war,” said South African-born Graeme Harris in London as he visited Mandela’s statue.photo 2: Joao Silva/The New York Times caption: Police officers threw flash grenades to disperse a small crowd of protesters outside the campus. photo 3: Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images / June 29, 2013.  caption: A member of the audience reacts as President Obama calls on him to ask a question during a town hall meeting at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. photo 4: Doug Mills/The New York Times caption: In a news conference with President Jacob Zuma, Mr. Obama discussed Nelson Mandela’s legacy and what the former South African president meant to him. Mr. Obama has called Mr. Mandela a personal hero.. photo 5: Bryan Denton for The New York Times. caption: A protester shouted at police officers after they dispersed an anti-Obama demonstration.)

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