Arts, Culture & Media

South Africa: The Importance and Irrelevance of the White House

This story is a part of

Human Needs

This story is a part of

Human Needs

At the Siyaphambili Orphan Village in Cape Town, dozens of children sit in an open courtyard. They slide paper beads onto long pieces of string, to make brightly colored necklaces and bracelets.

Player utilities

Listen to the Story.

Most of these children are here because their parents died of AIDS.

"We have 288 kids that we are taking care [of] around this community," says Ndileka Xameni, the orphanage director.

For years, Xameni and her staff struggled to feed and support such a large group. Then they received a grant from the United States, from a program started by President George W. Bush.

"It changed our lives," she says.

That American program — the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) — was launched in 2003.

"This comprehensive plan will prevent seven million new AIDS infections, treat at least two million people with life-extending drugs, and provide humane care for millions of people suffering from AIDS, and for children orphaned by AIDS," President Bush said in his 2003 State of the Union address.

At that time, many in the United States saw the AIDS epidemic in Africa as a tragedy that was too difficult — and too expensive — to tackle. But President Bush made this cause a personal crusade.

With the help of Congress, he allocated billions of dollars to fight AIDS in Africa, and that changed the course of the epidemic.

Some elements of PEPFAR were controversial, particularly a requirement that sex education programs teach abstinence. But Dr. David Harrison, founder of an HIV prevention program called LoveLife, says many South Africans viewed President Bush as a hero.

"He was regarded as somebody who had a heart, when their own government was still choosing to ignore [the epidemic] and appeared to be so callous," Harrison says.

But what about the next US President, or the one after that? Do Africans believe that the person in the White House will continue to affect their lives in such a direct way?

"Actually, the [American] presidency is not nearly as important as people might think it is," says Michael Power, a global strategist with the South African bank Investec.

While American aid remains important in Africa, Power says many countries see their economic future in trade.

America used to dominate trade here, but Africa's largest trading partner is now China. Other countries, especially India and Brazil, are also gaining ground.

According to Power, some Africans are more interested in the meeting of China's Communist Party, which begins November 8, than in the US presidential election. And he says that's for good reason.

"The transfer of power that's taking place in China is actually going to be more important than the transfer of power that will take place — if it does take place — in the United States in January," he says.

Power says as African countries grow their economies through trade and the US considers cuts to foreign aid, the US president could continue losing influence in Africa. And Africans will continue turning their gaze to the East.

  • IMG_0602-e1352140257686.jpg

    The Siyaphambili Orphan Village cares for 288 children in the township of Langa, on the eastern edge of Cape Town. Most of the children lost their parents to AIDS. (Photo: Anders Kelto)

  • IMG_0583.jpg

    Children at the Siyaphambili Orphan Village make necklaces using recycled paper beads. (Photo: Anders Kelto)

  • IMG_0595.jpg

    Ndileka Xameni, the founder of the Siyaphambili Orphan Village, stands with a child from the orphanage. (Photo: Anders Kelto)