CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Barack Obama, America’s first black president, twice crossed the cold and deep 9-mile channel that lies between this magnificent coastal city and Robben Island, where South Africa imprisoned its first black president, Nelson Mandela.
The last time Obama stood in the stone cell blocks and peered out of the barred windows was in June 2013, during a presidential visit to South Africa. Before that, in his first visit in 2006, Obama was a first-term United States senator.
History sits heavy on this rocky, wind-tortured island of scrub and penguin nesting grounds, as it does in all of South Africa. Along with Mandela, South Africa’s current president, Jacob Zuma, also was imprisoned here for crimes meant to foster a national movement to end white control over the black majority. Robben Island, shadowed by the immensity of Table Mountain and within easy reach of Africa’s wealthiest and most cosmopolitan city, may be the oddest presidential training ground in human history.
South Africa, though, is like that. The glory of the natural landscape is like a blindingly beautiful drape hiding the ragged, fractured geography of South Africa’s culture and economy. Having thrown off the racist white government in 1994, and elected Mandela and other capable black leaders to positions of authority, South Africa seemed to surge forward. Schools, housing, transportation, access to medical care, and incomes improved.
That momentum slowed earlier this decade and lately may have been jarred into reverse. Scandals and corruption accusations surround Zuma and his government, which has been weakened by cabinet shake-ups. A constitutional crisis is unfolding prompted by the president’s use of public funds to enhance his private estate. The rand, now worth barely 6 U.S. cents, has slid to its lowest value ever. Unemployment has soared to more than 35 percent. Economic growth may slip into negative numbers this year. A deep two-year drought could lead to the biggest crop failure in South Africa’s history, leading to a 25 percent increase in the price of food, and perhaps food shortages. Crime is ferocious everywhere. Continue reading “Robben Island’s Long Shadow of Justice”