Mandela Lecture

Obama returns as SA and the world are changing

By Nkateko Mabasa 26 April 2018

It has been four years since Barack Obama visited South Africa in December  2013 for the funeral of Nelson Mandela. And it is at the behest of the Nelson Mandela Foundation that he will return for the annual Nelson Mandela Lecture. A lot has changed in the world – and South Africa – since then.

When Barack Obama arrived in South Africa to deliver a eulogy at the memorial service of Nelson Mandela in December 2013, he was welcomed by a country united in grief for a beloved statesman.

When he returns in July, it will be to a country grappling with questions around Madiba’s legacy.

The recent death of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and the subsequent popularity of the documentary Winnie by French director Pascale Lamche, has left a less than desired portrait of Madiba. He is seen as a bitter husband in league with the conspirators against Madikizela-Mandela to silence her.

Intense debates around South Africa’s negotiated transition to democracy and whether Mandela was a sell-out rage on.

It is these perceptions that the Nelson Mandela Foundation hopes former US President Barack Obama will address when he delivers a keynote address at the annual Nelson Mandela lecture to be held on 17 July, at Ellis Park Arena, a day before what would have been Mandela’s centennial birthday.

Sello Hatang, CEO of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, explained why Obama was chosen as guest speaker.

We wanted someone who can best represent the legacy of Madiba and respond to the current challenges. Someone who took on the baton when he became president of his own country and who would be able to address the issues facing democracy in a world ravaged by corruption.”

Obama’s passion for public service was ignited at an anti-apartheid march that he was a part of as an undergraduate.

In his eulogy for Mandela back in 2013, Obama said: It woke me up to my responsibilities to others and to myself, and it set me on an improbable journey that finds me here today. And while I will always fall short of Madiba’s example, he makes me want to be a better man. He speaks to what’s best inside us”.

In 1999, when Mandela stepped down as president, the Nelson Mandela Foundation was established, with the vision of promoting his legacy. And that legacy, as envisioned by the Foundation, is “to build a society that remembers its past, listens to all its voices and pursues social justice”.

Find the Madiba in You,” is one of the catch-phrase written on the brochure for the Nelson Mandela Centenary Celebration. “The foundation’s mandate is to relevantly and tangibly use memory to inform, develop and define,” it reads further on.

This has also been Obama’s objective since he has left office, giving speeches throughout the world with state leaders and young people on the importance of public service and activism.

The Obama Foundation plans to host five days of workshops on leadership and public service with 200 young people this July in Johannesburg. This initiative will also be held in China, Germany and several other countries around Europe and Asia as part of the work the former president has dedicated himself to doing after office.

It gives him an opportunity to lift up a message of tolerance, inclusivity and democracy at a time when there are obviously challenges to Mandela’s legacy around the world,” said  former speech writer for Obama, Ben Rhodes to the New York Times.

The theme for this year’s Mandela Lecture is Renewing the Mandela Legacy and Promoting Active Citizenship in a Changing World.

Obama may draw a comparison between himself and former president Mandela, at a time whom both men’s legacies are being put up to scrutiny, and even trampled upon.

President Donald Trump has, since being in office, repealed a number of Obama’s policies – from pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement to repealing internet-privacy regulations and the Affordable Care Act (also known as ObamaCare).

For Mandela, the legacy of a rainbow nation is fast eroding. The land debate has lead many to question the success of the non-racial experiment of 1994. Were there too many concessions? And furthermore, was it all a scam?

Did Mandela sell out?” asked Hatang. “These are questions we need to engage in with young people on.” DM

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