Business, Economics and Jobs

Obama bids to win back Africa

SOWETO, South Africa — Can Barack Obama win back Africa?

On his three-nation tour of the continent, the first black American president has faced criticism for his perceived lack of engagement with Africa despite high hopes when he came into office in 2009.

Seeking to bolster his image, Obama hosted an American-style town hall meeting in the historic Soweto township with 600 of the continent's young leaders.

A few hundred people protested outside the University of Johannesburg's Soweto campus ahead of his visit Saturday, following similar demonstrations in Pretoria against Obama's foreign policy. South African police fired rubber bullets and stun grenades to clear protesters away from the university gates, injuring at least one person.

Soweto is famous for the 1976 uprising against apartheid rule, when black schoolchildren marched against forced Afrikaans-language instruction in schools. Twenty-three people were killed by police and hundreds injured on the first day of protests, many of them children, while scores more died in the weeks and months that followed.

It was these protests, exposing the brutality of the apartheid regime, that shocked the world and helped bring down racist white minority rule.

More from GlobalPost: On his African trip, Obama is bypassing 3 countries weak on human rights

Obama reiterated the significance of hosting the town hall in Soweto, noting that "here we learned that history is in our hands."

The event, part of the president's Young African Leaders Initiative, included video links to groups of young people in Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria, three key African powers that the president is skipping on this trip.

A young woman from Nairobi asked why Obama had not included Kenya, his father's birthplace, on the itinerary.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta is currently being prosecuted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, including murder and rape, allegedly committed by his supporters in the aftermath of elections in late 2007.

More from GlobalPost: Obama in Africa: Meh

"The timing was not right for me as the president of the United States to be visiting Kenya when those issues are still being worked on, and hopefully at some point resolved," Obama said.

"I am going to be president for another three-and-a-half years," he added. "If, in three years and seven months, I am not in Kenya, then you can fault me for not following through on my promise."

Obama also spoke of the economic opportunities in Africa, and told the audience that the United States wants to "sell planes and iPads" to the continent rather than intervene in conflicts.

"The idea somehow that we want to get more involved militarily around the world is simply not true," he said.

For more on Obama's visit to Soweto, see our Storify of live coverage from the event:

[View the story "Obama speaks to young Africans in Soweto" on Storify]