Obama emerges from shadows to honour Mandela in South Africa
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Former US president Barack Obama stepped out of the shadows on Tuesday to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela, during which he warned against a return to “a more brutal way of doing business”.
Obama was the main speaker at the 16th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in Johannesburg – which coincided with the centenary of the former South African leader’s birth.
The speech is Obama’s most high-profile international appearance since leaving office nearly two years ago. He has otherwise stayed largely out of the political spotlight during his post-presidency, quietly meeting with world leaders and groups away from the camera’s glare.
In some ways, Obama’s tribute to Mandela – who is also affectionately known as Madiba – could be interpreted as a not so subtle rebuke of the divisive politics embraced by his successor, Donald Trump, and other leaders around the world. Although Obama never mentioned Trump by name, he did allude to the impact his presidency has had on the international stage.
“Given the strange and uncertain times we are in – and they are strange, and they are uncertain, each day’s news cycles bringing more heads spinning and disturbing headlines – I thought maybe it would be useful to step back for a moment and try to get some perspective,” Obama said at the opening of his speech.
The former American president said he hoped that his reflections on Mandela’s legacy would serve as “roadmap” to a brighter future.
Mandela, who was imprisoned for 27 years over his campaign to end apartheid, was at the forefront of the fight against South Africa's white minority rule. He was released from prison in 1990, and elected the country’s first black president in 1994. His leadership was marked by his steadfast commitment to reconciliation, diversity and equality.
“During the last decades of the 20th century, the progressive democratic vision that Nelson Mandela represented in many ways set the terms of the international political debate… and it continued to propel the world forward,” Obama said.
He went on to argue that although strife continued, the values Mandela promoted at home in South Africa helped to combat discrimination and inequality around the world.
“An entire generation has grown up in a world that, by most measures, has got steadily freer and healthier and wealthier and less violent and more tolerant during the course of their lifetimes,” he said.
‘Politics of fear and resentment’
Obama warned, however, that the progress made over the last several decades is now under threat.
“If we cannot deny the very real strides that our world has made since that moment that Madiba took those steps out of confinement, we also have to recognise all the ways that the international order is falling short of its promise. In fact, it is in part because of the failures of government and of elites… that we now see much of the world threatening to return to an older, a more dangerous, a more brutal way of doing business,” he said.
Obama went on to highlight growing social inequalities in countries around the world, especially between the rich and poor.
“In every country, just about, the disproportionate economic clout of those at the top has provided these individuals with wildly disproportionate influence on their country’s political life, and on its media, on what policies are pursued and whose interests end up being ignored,” he said.
“The politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment [have begun] to appear. That kind of politics is now on the move. It’s on the move at a pace that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago. I am not being alarmist, I am simply stating the facts,” Obama said. “Look around, strongman politics are ascendant, suddenly.”
Obama concluded that to ensure Mandela’s legacy endures, society must promote democracy at the grassroots level by cultivating strong leaders and embracing each other’s differences.
“'To make peace with an enemy,’” Obama said, quoting Mandela. “‘One must work with that enemy. That enemy becomes one’s partner’.”
A symbolic choice
The choice of Obama to honour Mandela at the 16th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture is a highly symbolic one.
“We thought to ourselves, ‘Who can best represent the legacy of Madiba? Who took the baton when he became president of his own country? Who would be able to deal with issues of democracy in a world ripped apart by corruption?’” Sello Hatang, chief executive of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, said when announcing Obama as the keynote speaker.
Mandela's widow Graça Machel was among several speakers, including South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, to introduce Obama at the event. During her speech, Machel traced an arch between her late husband and Obama.
“He is a youthful symbol of transformative leadership in his own right. He is one who dutifully heeded Madiba’s call, and taken up in his own hands the hard work of leading by example,” Machel said.
“As the first democratically elected black president of South Africa, Madiba, and the first African American president of the United States, they both hold unique prominence in our consciousness.”
Obama will now remain in Johannesburg this week to launch his foundation’s “Leaders: Africa” programme, which will bring together 200 emerging figures from across the continent for a five-day workshop aimed at exploring solutions to the biggest challenges in their communities