Foreign Policy Blogs

African youth perceptions of the U.S.


U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks and takes questions at a town hall meeting with young African leaders at the University of Johannesburg Soweto campus, South Africa, which the author attended, June 29, 2013. Photo courtesy of VoA.

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks and takes questions at a town hall meeting with young African leaders at the University of Johannesburg Soweto campus, South Africa, which the author attended, June 29, 2013. Photo courtesy of VoA.

Being an American professor living in Africa and teaching international relations, I have been involved in numerous debates about my country and its foreign policy. Obviously you get your mix, some pro-U.S. and some not.

To try and make better sense of the situation, I decided to embark on a little pet project in October and surveyed hundreds of students in South Africa to get a general feel of the attitudes of the African youth towards America.

The students come from over 14 African countries, but all are currently studying in South African universities. The questions were based on Pew Research’s Global Attitudes Project to ensure comparable data. The students were also given an opportunity to express his or her feelings on the topic via an open ended comment section at the end of the Young People in International Affairs (YPIA) survey. Below are some of the key findings.

Overall, attitudes towards America and its people are favorable

final USA favorableOverall, the African youth have a positive attitude towards America and Americans. More than half of the individuals surveyed expressed a favorable opinion of the U.S. and Americans in general. However, it appears they like Americans more than the country itself. Only 57 percent of the respondents were in favor of the U.S. compared to 64 percent in favor of Americans.

These marks were significantly lower than Pew Research’s Global Attitudes Project 2013 that asked the same question: “Please tell me if you have a very favorable, somewhat favorable, somewhat unfavorable or very unfavorable  opinion of: a. The United States.”

Pew Research has found over the years that Africans overwhelmingly offer favorable assessments of the U.S. with roughly seven-in-ten or more see America in a positive light. However, this view is more common among among Christians than Muslims.

“Great people. Horrible politics,” writes one South African on the YPIA survey, while another student argues most of the American people aren’t bad, “quite friendly actually,” but their policies (internal and external) need to be redefined.

Obama is a confident leader but his policies are not looked upon favorably, especially drone strikes. He has also not handled Israel/Palestine and Climate Change well.

final obama confidenceThe African youth are more confident than not in Obama, 63 percent to 34 percent. This correlates with the Pew Research data. Pew found that the public in Africa give Obama high marks with clear majorities in nearly every African country surveyed.

Some youth, such a student from Swaziland feel: “American leadership is very strong and has an influence in the global arena.” A South African youth writes: “Obama has done well for the USA. I would hope that our president would take a few pointers from him.” However,  another student believes “Obama is a puppet leader.”

The crucial issues begin to pop up when a closer examination of the survey data on specific policies takes place. Seventy-two (72 percent) of the students surveyed feel the U.S. does not take into account the issues of African countries when making international policy decisions. They are also strongly against drone strikes — 63 percent disapproving and 23 percent approving — and the handling of the Israel/Palestine situation with 59 percent of respondents saying President Obama has not been fair.

They like American democracy, but they don’t like the U.S. spreading it

final ideas of democracySimilar to the Pew data, the African youth like the idea of American democracy. However, when asked whether it is good or bad that American ideas and customs are spreading in your country, 49 percent of the YPIA survey respondents said it is bad, 37 percent answered it is good and 14 percent chose don’t know/refuse to answer.

One South African commented that America is “stable and governed under a strong system of democracy.” A Zimbabwean student “likes the democracy it has but it also have to know that countries cannot follow its steps.” A student from the Seychelles feels Americans have a system of “the hypocrisy of democracy.”

Unfamiliar with certain US policies/programs or perhaps unsure, but one thing is for certain….they like American movies and television

Comparable to the Pew Global Attitudes 2013 Report, there are a number questions with large numbers of “don’t know/refuse” responses. For instance, 29 percent of the individuals surveyed on their approval or disapproval of the international policies of President Obama could or would not give an answer. Between 8-12 percent percent of Americans answer the same way.

A similar situation occurred when the African youth where asked about America being a major contributor of development aid and assistance to South Africa and whether they favored Obama’s economic policies — 25 percent don’t know or refuse. The African youth also appear a little unsure about the US-led war against terrorism, which is growing in Africa, with 43 percent in favor and 38 percent not.

And last but not least, the findings of the survey undoubtedly show that the African youth are fond of American television and movies with 82 percent of the respondents answering “I like” compared to 13 percent “dislike.” This is significantly higher compared to the recent Pew data which shows a median of 58 percent for the six African countries surveyed.


To read download the full report, click here YPIA Special Report, African youth and US, Firsing



Scott Firsing

Dr. Scott Firsing, an American residing in South Africa, is an expert on US-Africa relations. He is the Director of the North American International School (NAIS) in Pretoria, an Adjunct Research Fellow at Monash University, South Africa, an Executive at the Aerospace Leadership Academy and CEO of LINK Advisory, a consultancy helping American businesses enter Africa. Also a founder of the African NGO Young People in International Affairs, Scott is the former Head of International Studies at Monash, a former employee of the United Nations, Department for Disarmament Affairs, and a former fellow at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA).