JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – When Lebo Mothae speaks about the United States of America, she smiles brightly. “If I could go to America that would be my dream – just to be there!”
Mothae’s only contact with American people is when she encounters the crowds of tourists that she must cut through to walk her 4-year-old son from home to a nursery school close to Vilakazi Street in Soweto, the South African township. The area is popular with visitors because it is the street where former President Nelson Mandela once lived and former Archbishop Desmond Tutu still has a home.
To Mothae, a 32-year-old nursery school teacher, the United States represents a beacon of relative racial harmony.
The U.S. and South Africa share a dark racial past, but South Africa’s is much more recent – white minority rule by the apartheid regime ended when Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and became president in 1994 after the country’s first democratic elections.
And although Mothae questioned her belief in the American people during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the election of an African-American president in the U.S. renewed her hopes for racial equality at home and abroad.
“That election made me feel so warm about the American people,” she said.
Her faith in all things American was enhanced when first lady Michelle Obama visited South Africa last year, a trip that included a visit to Soweto.
“She’s a darling,” Mothae said. “I remember the day and the time that she came to this side [South Africa]. She’s a nice lady. She’s quite down-to-earth. I like her.
“I see a mother – a caring person. She’s devoted to what she’s doing. She is an icon for all black women in America, in South Africa and around the world.”
China means big money
But when Mothae talks of the future, and envisages the type of massive investment which might transform Soweto for her child’s generation, she speaks of China, not the United States.
“China is the number one country because they produce so many things. So many things come from China. Even in America they have to go to China. That makes them the number one country.”
Across Africa, the sudden emergence of massive Chinese investment, much of it in natural resources to satisfy the needs of its rapidly growing economy, has changed entire communities. Bilateral trade between China and Africa has grown exponentially – particularly in just the last few decades.
In 1950 China-Africa bilateral trade was just $12 million, but by 1980, it topped $1 billion, according to China’s Ministry of Commerce. That number jumped over the last 30 years, with China-Africa trade volume reaching $114 billion by 2010, according to the Chinese. Some analysts estimate that figure is likely to reach $300 billion by 2015.
The money has helped to build highways, stadiums and parliament buildings across the continent – while also taking away many of the continent’s natural resources.
Many leaders, including South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, have been impressed by China’s enthusiasm for Africa as well as its perceived “no strings attached” approach to investment.
Perhaps in response, U.S. President Barack Obama unveiled a new “U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa” earlier in June.
The strategy's most important objectives are “strengthening democratic institutions and promoting economic growth, trade and investment,” according to the White House.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reinforced the idea of Africa as an ideal place for investment in the 21st century on the same day as Obama’s announcement.
“Africa offers the highest rate of return on foreign direct investment of any developing region in the world,” said Clinton. “We in the United States like to talk about ourselves as the country that is the land of opportunity. It’s a point of national pride. Well, in the 21st century, Africa is the continent that is the land of opportunity.”
While the U.S. may have an uphill battle selling itself as an economic powerhouse, in terms of cultural influence, it still tops China.
U.S. will always have Oprah and Beyonce
Close to Vilakazi Street, Ayanda Mchunu, a 26-year-old street-vendor, said his souvenir business has been boosted by a surge in Chinese tourists.
“I keep my eye out for the Americans and the Chinese; we think they have the most money,” he said.
And, despite the ascendancy of China, he said that the “soft power” of the United States would endure through its cultural influence
“Even children – they always talk about the U.S.”
“Most of the children, they watch films…The characters are from the U.S.,” Mchunu said. “That’s why they’re inspired by the U.S.”
Nearby, Lesego Seitisho, a former IT administrator, was stopping passers-by in search of work after completing a contract with a Chinese company. He found his employer’s approach to workplace discipline enlightening and hopes to find a job with another Chinese firm.
But he believed that American culture and the popularity of celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Beyonce in South Africa give the United States influence that China could never match.
“America is on TV all the time and when the TV’s off America is still switched on in your mind.”
“My head says that China is number one, my heart always says America.”
This story is part of a series by msnbc.com and NBC News "What the World Thinks of US". The series aims to check the pulse on current perceptions of America's global stature during the election year and ahead of our annual Independence Day. Share your thoughts about this story and our series on Twitter using #AmericaMeans