I imagine that it is not easy being the first black president of a “land settled by the Dutch in the mid-17th century, then taken over by the British, and at last independent; a land in which the native inhabitants were at first subdued, but relations with whom remain a problem to this day; a land which defined itself on a hostile frontier; a land which has tamed rich natural resources through the energetic application of modern technology; a land which was once the importer of slaves, and now must struggle to wipe out the last traces of bondage”.
I am imagine it was not easy being President Barack Obama. The only man who I imagine carried an even bigger burden is the first black president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela.
Obama returns to South Africa in a few days to deliver the annual Nelson Mandela lecture in celebration of the centenary of Mandela’s birthday on 17 July. It was in 2006 that the then Senator Obama visited South Africa for the first time. His inaugural visit came at a time when the relationship between the United States and the rest of the world was highly volatile as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq entered their fifth and third years respectively.
At that moment of his historic visit to Africa, Obama actually had no plans of running for the 2008 presidential elections, which is understandable considering he had just recently emerged victorious from a gruelling campaign which led to his election as the fifth African American senator in his country’s history. However, his visit to South Africa would change his mind, life and history forever.
Obama’s South African visit started in Cape Town where he toured Robben Island, the prison where Mandela had spent 18 years of his life sentence. He spent time in the cell occupied by Mandela, whom he had met for the first time in May 2005, when Mandela was visiting Washington DC.
The senator took a picture with his hero which Mandela would later place symbolically behind his office chair where it remains today at the Nelson Mandela Foundation Centre of Memory.
Obama made his momentous decision to run for the presidency of the US in February 2007, shortly after his first visit to South Africa which is fitting considering that his first political act as a rebellious 18-year-old was inspired by our country. This was an anti-apartheid protest and it was the anti-apartheid movement that gave Obama a sense of racial identity and a purposeful life which set him on a course towards his place in history.
Obama’s life had long been influenced by Mandela as he recalls in the foreword to Mandela’s book, Conversations with Myself, where he writes:
“I came to know of Nelson Mandela from a distance, when he was imprisoned on Robben Island. To so many of us, he was more than just a man – he was a symbol of the struggle for justice, equality, and dignity in South Africa and around the globe. His sacrifice was so great that it called upon people everywhere to do what they could on behalf of human progress. In the most modest of ways, I was one of those people who tried to answer his call… his example helped awaken me to the wider world, and the obligation that we all have to stand up for what is right. Through his choices, Mandela made it clear that we did not have to accept the world as it is – that we could do our part to seek the world as it should be.”
Obama has said that he cannot fully imagine his own life without the example that Mandela set. How astounding it is to think that America’s first black president was borne from the legacy of our first black president.
The last time Obama, then president, was in South Africa was under more sombre circumstances, the end of Mandela’s long walk in 2013. Upon hearing of Mandela’s death Obama reminded the world that it “falls to us as best we can to forward the example that Mandela set: to make decisions guided not by hate, but by love; to never discount the difference that one person can make; to strive for a future that is worthy of his sacrifice”.
Obama returns to South Africa to remind us once again why Mandela’s legacy is worthy of emulation. Obama is a fitting choice for this year’s lecture as these two men share a title the burden of which many of us will never comprehend – first black president. And both men carried that title with admirable dignity.
It is not easy being the first black of anything let alone the first black president of a racially fraught country. Contending with deeply entrenched pessimistic views of black leadership – being the first black president leaves little margin for error; your success as the first black is bound up with the image of an entire people which you represent. You are the vessel for their redemption and success.
How the first black president performs reverberates in classrooms, boardrooms and every facet of society. As a black person you hope that you can hold your head up high at school, the workplace and everywhere else and not have to answer for any ills or mistakes made by your black president.
The title of first black comes with intense scrutiny and unrealistically high standards and expectations to solve all the problems that plague your kinfolk. Both Mandela and Obama are proof that first blacks have to be almost perfect or else risk confirming the stereotype that black people are not fit to lead.
The leadership quality I admire most from these two men is their ability to keep a cool head even under extreme pressure.
One of my favourite stories about Mandela was before he was elected president but when he became our shadow president. His biographer, Richard Stengel, recalls how after hearing of Chris Hani’s assassination, probably the closest we came to a civil war, Mandela was preternaturally calm and after making plans to go to Johannesburg to speak to the nation, methodically finished eating his breakfast.
This was not an indulgent act by Mandela but a demonstration of level- headedness needed to calm the storm. The ability to compartmentalise his emotions, get through the tedious tasks of the day before going out to save the world is the kind of leader that we can all strive to be especially in today’s provocative climate.
Similarly Obama exhibited the same leadership quality especially when he decided to forego a military strike after being presented with near-definitive proof that President Bashar al-Assad of Syria had used chemical weapons. In defence of his controversial decision Obama said that “to press the pause button at that moment, I knew, would cost me politically. And the fact that I was able to pull back from the immediate pressures and think through in my own mind what was in America’s interest, not only with respect to Syria but also with respect to our democracy, was as tough a decision as I’ve made – and I believe ultimately it was the right decision to make.”
These are just a few examples where both leaders have demonstrated an even temperament in the face of volatility which seems out of pace with today’s erratic, impatient and reactive world.
Both Obama and Mandela were presidents in times of great division and instead of exploiting the division for their own political expediency they appealed to the best in us. Obama’s admiration of Mandela is rooted in the promise embodied by Mandela’s life that human beings, and countries, can change for the better.
Mandela’s first speech in Cape Town after his release in 1990 and Obama’s speech accepting his election as the president of the US in 2008 share the same thread – that the need for unity as a people is as important a task as it always has been.
Mandela attributed his release and the fall of apartheid to the people as a mass movement and called on our white compatriots to join us in the shaping of a new South Africa. Obama too acknowledged that his victory was that of the people, reminding his fellow countrymen that they rise or fall as one nation, as one people.
Obama and Mandela appealed to our humanity because they understood that real transformation of a society happens when we change not just its political system but the character of that system. Changing the character of the system remains necessary not just for the public sector but the private sector which desperately needs radically empathetic, thoughtful and just leaders who would do well by answering Mandela’s call to stand up for what is right.
Both South Africa and the US are not short of darkness and ugliness. However, these two first black leaders didn’t see their task as hiding that ugliness but rather as reminding us that there is something in all of us that is good and that will ultimately win out even if it takes decades.
These two men represent the pinnacle of black leadership but the journey does not end with them. The Mandela centenary has provided a space of reflecting on how I can live the legacy I have inherited by those who came before me. Living the legacy means being trailblazers and pioneers in our own lives and spaces. Living the legacy means pushing for change and progress where we are called to. DM