50 Years Later, Obama Follows Up Kennedy's Cape Town Speech

On Sunday night in Cape Town, South Africa, President Obama gave the keystone speech of his trip across the continent. The event was held at the University of Cape Town. Almost half a century ago, Robert F. Kennedy spoke to the people of Africa from the exact location.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

After a weekend spent in South Africa, President Obama arrived in East Africa this morning. He'll spend the next two days in Tanzania.

Tomorrow, the president will participate in a wreath-laying ceremony at the U.S. embassy there. That was the site of a 1998 terrorist bombing that killed 11 people. The White House announced this morning that President Obama will be joined by former President George W. Bush.

Last night, Mr. Obama delivered the keynote speech of his African trip. The event was held at the University of Cape Town. And as NPR's Ari Shapiro reports, the White House chose that venue for a very special reason.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Almost half a century ago, another famous American spoke to the people of Africa from this exact location.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SENATOR ROBERT F. KENNEDY: Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope.

SHAPIRO: The University of Cape Town is where Robert F. Kennedy delivered his famous "Ripples of Hope" speech in 1966. It was a few years after Nelson Mandela went to prison, a major speech that took apartheid head-on. Yesterday, President Obama reflected on how much the world has changed since Kennedy spoke those words.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It would have seemed inconceivable to people at that time that less than 50 years later, an African-American president might address an integrated audience at South Africa's oldest university, and that this same university would have conferred an honorary degree to a president, Nelson Mandela. It would have seemed impossible.

SHAPIRO: He said Mandela's life and legacy stand as a challenge.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: They stand as a challenge to me, but more importantly, they stand as a challenge to your generation, because they tell you that your voice matters.

SHAPIRO: Mandela has been a powerful force on every step of this trip. Yesterday, the Obama family toured Robben Island, where Mandela was a prisoner. The day before that, the president met with the Mandela family in Johannesburg. This trip has also had less poetic themes. Chief among them, President Obama says at every stop that the era of handouts to Africa is over.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: We are moving beyond the simple provision of assistance, foreign aid, to a new model of partnership.

SHAPIRO: In the past, America's relationship with Africa chiefly involved aid programs, massive efforts to distribute emergency food and medicine to people in need. Now, Obama says, the U.S. will focus on helping Africans provide for themselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: We're bringing together business leaders from America and Africa to deepen our engagement. We're going to launch new trade missions and promote investment from companies back home.

SHAPIRO: Sitting in the audience, Sindiwe Magona says it's about time. She's a retired U.N. worker from Cape Town who was one of the invited guests to the speech.

SINDIWE MAGONA: Africa is where it is not for lack of aid, not for lack of money. It's management. It's corruption that makes it sink.

SHAPIRO: President Obama also talked about corruption. This was his biggest applause line of the night.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: History tells us that true progress is only possible where governments exist to serve their people, and not the other way around.

SHAPIRO: Obama also unveiled some new initiatives in this speech. One of them aims to give farmers technology so they can work more land and get their crops to market. On global health, the president has set a goal of ending child and maternal deaths from preventable diseases. And the last major program he talked about is called Power Africa. Right now, only a third of people in sub-Saharan Africa have electricity. The White House hopes to double the number of people who get power through a combination of government and private investments.

OBAMA: A light where currently there's darkness. The energy needed to lift people out of poverty. That's what opportunity looks like.

SHAPIRO: In Tanzania tomorrow, President Obama will visit the Ubungo power plant to drive this point home. The plant is run by a U.S. company, making profits for Americans and providing electricity to Tanzanians. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Cape Town.

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