South Africa


Barack Obama shines a light on our ‘strange and uncertain times’

Former US President Barack Obama (C) after delivering his speech, with President Cyril Ramaphosa during the annual Mandela Lecture to commemorate Mandela Day, Johannesburg, South Africa, 17 July 2018. Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela was born 100 years ago and the lecture is part of a week long celebration of his life. EPA-EFE/STR

Queues can be great levellers. But yesterday’s long line of people who snaked towards the security checks for the Annual Nelson Mandela lecture was also reminiscent of that moment of hope in 1994, when millions waited patiently in line to cast their first vote.

It took more than an hour and a half to get through the stringent security checks and into the Wanderers Stadium where former United States president Barack Obama was to deliver the Nelson Mandela annual lecture to mark the centenary of the birth of the first democratic president. More than *15,000 people descended on the stadium to listen to Obama. It was the biggest annual lecture the Nelson Mandela Foundation has yet hosted.

The long wait did not dim the good humour of the crowd, even when some politicians, or former politicians, walked to the front with an air of self-importance.

The message of the long afternoon was also reminiscent of that golden moment of hope and freedom in 1994, albeit with a harder eye on the future.

Yesterday was a moment that re-asserted the values embodied in Nelson Mandela and gently nudged the revisionist ideas of a new generation, some of whom have cast Mandela, a man who spent 27 years in jail, as someone who buckled to the enemy. It also became a warning against the dangers of populism and racial chauvinism from both the left and right.

Most of all, it was a moment that marked a tangible change in atmosphere in the country. The last time Obama was in town was in 2013, when he was still President and spoke at Mandela’s funeral. Jacob Zuma, then president of South Africa, was roundly booed by the mourners.

This time, when the new president Cyril Ramaphosa stood up to speak, he was cheered and given a standing ovation.

South Africa and the United States have both borne presidencies in recent years that have undermined institutions of democracy and legitimacy. As Njabulo Ndebele, the writer and chair of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, put it:

What came to be seen in South Africa as a state capture seemed mirrored in the US by what we could call… a capture of democracy.”

Here, the President who undermined the institutions of democracy in his quest to channel state resources to cronies, has gone. In the United States, the President who is building a culture of “racism” and “denialism”, among other things, has shifted the public discourse, as Ndebele put it, from “the language of social cohesion to a validation of membership to what we would call political tribes”.

In his nearly hour-and-a-half-long speech, Obama never once mentioned Trump by name. But he sketched the atmosphere early on by referring to the “strange and uncertain times” we live in, punctuated by “disturbing headlines”.

And in an age which he described as being one of “anti-intellectualism”, he took a step back to describe the force of history that had changed the world in the 100 years since Mandela’s birth.

There was no reason to believe that a young black boy at this time in this place could in any way alter history. South Africa was just a decade away from British colonial rule. Most of Africa was under colonial rule; the dominant colonial powers ended a horrific world war just a few months after Madiba’s birth. Indifference towards black culture and black aspirations was a given.”

Certain races and groups believed they were innately superior, status was bound by caste and ethnicity and even in his own country, a democracy “founded on the declaration that all men are created equal, racial segregation was the law in almost half the country and the norm in the rest of the country”.

The changes wrought in the wake of the Second World War – anti-colonial liberation movements in Africa, the civil rights and women’s movements in the United States and the rise of trade unions which restrained the excesses of capitalism, and the growth of a middle class– constituted “remarkable transformation”.

And in South Africa, as the apartheid state consolidated its power, Mandela’s moral example and sacrifice signified “something larger”. It encapsulated the aspirations of people around the world and their hopes for a better life.

Madiba’s light shone so brightly from that narrow Robben Island cell that in the late 1970s he could inspire a young college student on the other side of the world to re-examine his own priorities… What small role might I be able to play in bending the arc of the world towards justice.”

Mandela’s release in 1990, just months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, carved out a new narrative of hope and freedom.

Around the world dictatorships gave way to democracies, scientific breakthroughs and new technologies could unleash entrepreneurial energies, and about one billion people were lifted out of poverty.

All of that progress is real and it happened by the standards of human history in what has been the blink of an eye.”

But this particular march of history was waylaid by the 2008 financial crisis. Globalisation, too, although it brought some benefits, also allowed the wealthy to not only move businesses offshore, but to avoid taxes. It resulted in “an explosion of economic inequality”.

Much of Obama’s message was about human solidarity – about re-stating basic human rights. He admonished some developing countries for claiming that rights such as freedom of expression, or rights of women or minorities, “or the right of people not to be beaten and jailed because of sexual orientation … don’t apply to us, these are Western ideas.”

He also warned against the legitimisation of authoritarian rule by strong economies such as China or Russia, the re-emergence of “strong man” politics and the far-right parties in Europe based not only on protectionism but on racial nationalism.

And those giant leaps of technological progress such as social media, which have the potential to enhance knowledge and cement a common humanity, “have proved to be just as effective at promoting hatred and paranoia and propaganda”.

He spoke to a receptive audience, many of whom became impromptu choruses to his performance, punctuating his speech with murmurs of “yes!” or sometimes “eish!”

He did not name culprits when he described the recent resurgence of racism, but said racial chauvinism was bad not only in principle but for practical reasons too. A society that draws on a range of skills delivers benefits.

If you doubt that just look at the French football team. None of those folks look like Gauls to me, but they’re French.”

He did not name names either when speaking about the importance of being able to compromise with one’s opponents, but said a prerequisite for engagement had to be a respect for the facts.

If I say this is a podium and you say it’s an elephant, it’s going to be hard for us to co-operate.”

One could engage with people on the details of alternative energy use, for instance.

But I can’t find common ground with someone who says climate change is just not happening… in spite of what all the world’s scientists say… it’s an elaborate hoax.”

The world, says Obama, a century after Mandela’s birth, is at a crossroads.

So, too, is South Africa. That the crowd cheered when he mentioned the dead-end of racism, the abuse of women, the rise of inequality, the insidiousness of corruption and the concomitant lack of accountability, is a reflection of our own post-Zuma bedevilments.

That Ndebele and Mandela’s widow Graça Machel, as well as a former US president, have to mention not only Mandela’s grace – his stature, Machel said, “could not shake him into pompous arrogance” – but his suffering for the cause of freedom – is perhaps a sign of how far our own social cohesion has slipped. Mandela’s “narrow cell”, the long deprivation of the company of children, the solitary confinement he sometimes endured, are rarely in our national consciousness.

Still, there were signs of hope in the record crowd that turned out for the lecture. Many in the stands were young people, including school children. It is a cautious hope though, tempered by the disappointments of the past decade.

The crowd did not boo the new President hosting Obama, as they had done to his predecessor; they applauded when he said Mandela’s dedication to service had inspired the Thuma Mina campaign and they cheered when he promised to tackle inequality and “root corruption out of our soil”.

But their song was not like those of old that lauded Mandela: “Nelson Mandela, Akekh’ofananaye” (There is no one like him). Rather, it was one of encouragement: “Phakama, Ramaphosa,” they sang. Stand up. “Ixehsa lifikile”. The time has come. DM

  • In this article, the estimate of attendees at the lecture was amended at 1.10pm on 18 July 2018.

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