On the final leg of his Africa tour, President Barack Obama stopped in Cape Town to give a major speech at the University of Cape Town (UCT). Along with Obama, the White House Press Corps (WHPC) and a fleet of non-White House press arrived to cover the story, and I was privileged to escort the WHPC to and from the event.
A week before the President’s arrival, I was asked if I would like to escort the White House Press Corps during the upcoming visit. I agreed; and after a background check, I assigned to help the U.S. Consulate in Cape Town shuttle the press around the city.
On Saturday, June 29, five other students and I met at the Radisson Blu Waterfront to meet with the Consulate’s Public Diplomacy Officer. We were briefed on what to wear, what we would be doing, and how to handle questions. We then drove to the airport to see the staging area where we would meet the press and drove the route to UCT and back to the hotel. At the hotel, we covered last minute questions and were told to meet at 4:45 the next morning to stage the vehicles for the arrival of the WHPC.
On Sunday, I woke up at 3:00 am, showered, got dressed, and took a taxi to the hotel. At 4:45 am, we staged the vehicles and the bus drivers began lining up the busses to travel to the airport. Despite the hotel guaranteeing that the vehicles would fit in the parking lot, the busses had to line up instead on the road in front of the hotel. This snag was followed by another, as the WHPC plane arrived earlier than planned. Around 5:45 am, we left for the airport arriving at 6:15 am. The vehicles parked and we had about two hours until the plane was to arrive. Around 7:00 am, the South African Police Service (SAPS) escort showed up in four white BMWs and right before the plane arrived the police began suiting up.
The local police opened the trunks of the cars and pulled out large duffle bags. From the bags, they removed their bulletproof vests, tactical vests, and helmets. The police then pulled machine guns from the bags. At around 8 am, the plane landed and the WHPC disembarked and filed on to their respective busses. I was assigned to a Sprinter van, which carried members of the U.S. State Department. During the ride back to the hotel, the police escort kept the convoy together by weaving in and out of traffic and making sure that none of the regular traffic got between the busses. On the opposite side of the road, I saw the Presidential motorcade driving towards the airport to pick up the President. The motorcade was an impressive sight stretching close to a mile long.
Once we reached the hotel, the journalist were given their room keys and we were allowed to relax; so, we went to the waterfront for breakfast, which felt like lunch even though it was only 9 am. Around 2:00 pm, we reconvened with the Public Diplomacy Officer and divided into two teams to take the journalists to UCT. Again, we were escorted by the local police, who blocked off roads to keep the convoy together. At UCT, we waited for two hours as the journalists set up, during which time we chatted with the journalists, including NPR’s Ari Shapiro.
The entire time we were at UCT it unclear whether we would be allowed into the hall to see President Obama speak. However, at the last moment, we were allowed in and were seated with the WHPC only about 50 feet from the podium. Before Obama came on stage, UCT opera singers and a traditional South African band entertained the crowd. At 6:15 pm, Obama walked in and on to the stage. He started his speech off by greeting the crowd in every official language of South Africa. He spoke about how he got involved in politics because of apartheid and the struggles of Nelson Mandela. President Obama referenced Robert Kennedy’s visit to UCT in 1966 before turning to the political situation in South Africa and more broadly, in Africa. In reference to George Washington and his resignation after two terms, Obama stated, “The ability to leave power is as profound as the ability to assume power,” a veiled reference to various African dictators who have seized and retained political power, but without necessarily using it to benefit their nations or people. After about 45 minutes, President Obama ended his speech by quoting Nelson Mandela:
“Love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
Immediately after, we had to escort the WHPC back to the busses to go back to their hotel. After dropping the press at the hotel, I was free to leave but still excited from the day. My head finally hit the pillow at 11 pm and I went to sleep.