Obama hails ‘rising’ Africa, touts new energy, trade ties

President Obama in South Africa on Sunday touted a “new model” of U.S.-Africa ties, vowing to build economic links vital to helping the continent rise economically and strengthen democracy. [WATCH VIDEO]

“America has been involved in Africa for decades, but we are moving beyond the simple provision of assistance – foreign aid – to a new model of partnership between America and Africa, a partnership of equals that focuses on your capacity to solve problems and your capacity to grow,” Obama said at the University of Cape Town.

“Many of the fastest growing economies in the world are here in Africa, where there is a historic shift taking place, from poverty to a growing, nascent middle class,” Obama added. “There’s an energy here that can’t be denied. Africa rising.”

Obama’s remarks came after the first family traveled to Robben Island, where former South African President Nelson Mandela had been imprisoned for 18 years during the anti-apartheid struggle.

The 94-year old Mandela was hospitalized earlier this month with a serious lung infection that has left him fighting for his life.

The president hailed Mandela’s legacy in his remarks and said South Africa’s first black president had opened the door to economic and political progress on the continent.

Obama told students that Mandela’s failing health “weighs heavily on our hearts.”

“Like billions all over the world, I and the American people have drawn strength from the example of this extraordinary leader and the nation that he changed,” said Obama.

The president also said Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement had touched his own life, describing how, as a 19-year-old college student, he got involved in the divestment movement.

Obama recalled that the first speech he ever gave was at an anti-apartheid rally, where he was a “warm-up act” at a protest demanding that his school – Occidental College – divest from the apartheid government.

“So I got up on stage, I started making my speech, and then, as a bit of political theater, some people came out with glasses that looked like security officers and they dragged me off the stage,” Obama said.

“Fortunately, there are no records of this speech. 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.

The centerpiece of the president’s speech was the announcement of new energy and trade initiatives, as he sought to reframe the U.S. relationship to an African continent he said is moving into a new economic phase.

Obama said the U.S. will intensify its trade ties with the continent, noting “I am calling for America to up our game when it comes to Africa.”

He vowed steps including new trade missions and seeking renewal of the African Growth and Opportunity Act.

Obama also touted the “Power Africa” plan, a five-year, $7 billion dollar U.S. initiative to help double electricity access in sub-Saharan Africa.

The president said energy is vital to help students study, businesses operate, families meet basic needs and provides “the connection needed to plug Africa into the grid of the global economy.”

“A light where currently there is darkness, the energy needed to lift people out of poverty. That’s what opportunity looks like,” Obama said.

“Power Africa” will initially work with Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, and Tanzania and is aimed at providing 20 million more households and businesses with energy access.

More than two-thirds of residents of sub-Saharan Africa currently do not have electricity, including more than 85 percent of people in rural areas, the White House said.

“From policy and regulatory best practices, to pre-feasibility support and capacity building, to long-term financing, insurance, guarantees, credit enhancements and technical assistance Power Africa will provide coordinated support to help African partners expand their generation capacity and access,” according to a White House summary.

The program – which the White House said is leveraging more than $9 billion in private sector commitments – will include financing and assistance through a number of agencies.

That includes up to $5 billion through the U.S. Export-Import Bank, and $1.5 billion in financing and insurance through the Overseas Private Investment Corp. A White House “fact sheet” that summarizes and promotes the program is here.

The initiative includes separate provisions on partnering with Uganda and Mozambique on “responsible” oil and gas resources management, the White House said.

Improving the “transparency” of governance is seen as crucial to helping to avoid and reverse the “resource curse,” in which oil- and mineral rich nations are often plagued by poverty, corruption and conflict.

The president though acknowledged that despite the new partnership, Africa would face many challenges, but urged young South Africans to redouble their efforts.

“We know this progress, though, rests on a fragile foundation, we know that progress is uneven. Across Africa, the same institutions that should be the backbone of democracy can all too often be infected with the rot of corruption,” he said.

“There is no question that Africa is on the move, but it's not moving fast enough for the child still languishing in poverty in forgotten townships.  It's not moving fast enough for the protester who is beaten in Harare, or the woman who is raped in Eastern Congo,” said Obama. “We've got more work to do, because these Africans must not be left behind.”