As the world week celebrated the memory and legacy of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela last week, one of Africa’s and the entire planet’s most illustrious leaders, former US President Barack Obama and other notables gathered in Johannesburg to mark the centenary anniversary of this global icon of liberation and freedom.
Speaking to an enthusiastic audience in Johannesburg’s famous Wanderers sports stadium in icy winter conditions, Obama referenced his own African roots and said that the world needed leaders who were listening to what was happening “down at the grassroots” level.
It did not need more “strongmen” or a return to an older, “more brutal” style of doing business.
Obama was using the occasion to reference the advances of the last 100 years that seemed to reflect the inevitable march of history towards to the supreme victory of modernity and human rights over traditional forms of oppression, inequality and colonial-style domination.
When Nelson Mandela was released from prison some 28 years ago, and shortly after the fall of the iron curtain in Europe with the collapse of the Soviet Union, it seemed that with every step he took as he walked out of Victor Verster prison near Cape Town, Mandela was marking out a new landscape wherein people as individuals were becoming the centre of political action, said Obama.
“Governments are meant to serve the people, not the other way around,” said the former US President to an audience of some 15,000 cheering fans.
With every seat taken, international stars such as South African-born Charlize Theron were among many other luminaries, including former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Anan and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who had gathered to hear the 16th annual Nelson Mandela lecture delivered by Obama.
South Africans from across the racial, political and social spectrum braved the cold – amusingly referenced by Obama, who said he’d “got my geography wrong, and had had to get longjohn underpants prior to the event to help deal with the unexpected iciness of the southern African winter – to hear him and other notables speak about Mandela, affectionately referred to by almost all as Madiba, and his legacy in the 100th year since his birth.
Drawing comparisons between his own relatively obscure birth to a Kenyan father and that of Mandela in a tiny, rural backwater in a remote corner of South Africa, and the subsequent “unlikely” rise of both to leadership heights in their own countries and of the world, Obama said there had been no good reason to believe that either of them would have amounted to anything at all in life.
This showed that there was always hope, despite the recent rise of the right wing across Europe and in America, along with thinly-disguised race-based nationalisms, giving the appearance that the world today was far more unstable and filled with political tensions than in 1990 after the Berlin Wall fell and Mandela was released from 27 years behind bars.
In a rousing speech, reminiscent to observers of the relaxed, conversational but precisely articulate Obama of his early years in the White House, the former US President called on young people to stand on the shoulders of giants like Mandela and move his human-centred agenda forward.
The example of Mandela was proof that anyone could rise to become a powerful force for positive change, locally and even globally.
Instead of being oppressed by the seeming backward slide of the world into ever-narrower race-based notions of “like me” and “not like me”, young people should realise that this was merely a counter-point to the movement towards more equal societies.
While there had been a huge increase in inequality, especially since the major economic downturn of the 2007/8 period, with the richer becoming vastly richer yet, and the poorer much poorer still, this did not mean that all was lost.
Inequality had to be fought, starting at the “grassroots level”, where things may not be working as they should, and all had to become activists in improving the lot of the sidelined, the poor and disempowered.
This was the legacy of Mandela – and other great leaders of which Africa as a whole had a rich history.
His lecture was serious but at the same time sprinkled with numerous asides and jokes, including referencing the fact that “all politicians lie” but some (without mentioning his successor’s name) seemed no longer to be embarrassed when caught out lying, but instead simply “doubled-down” and just “made stuff up”.
His comments seemed particularly well-received by current SA President Cyril Ramaphosa and the notables on the stage, including Mandela’s wife at the time of his death, Graca Machel.
Fully living up to his reputation of being a great orator, Obama fired up the crowd with a rousing call to all to live up to the soaring heights of the legacy of Mandela.
To do this, five things were needed.
Firstly, there was the necessary realisation that economics lay at the root of politics and had to be addressed so that real democracy – not the pretence at such, as was the case in some countries – could help redress the historical inequalities which still pertained.
Secondly, it had to be accepted that everyone enjoyed an inherent dignity and worth, just as the founding fathers of America had said in their declaration of independence.
This was something intrinsic to being human and was not something governments had the right to give or take away – they were universal rights and had to be established as such. Thirdly, democracy was about much more than just elections. It was about giving force and effect to the fact that governments were in place to serve their people, not the reverse.
Fourth, said the former US President, facts mattered.
In an obvious reference to the “fake news” and “alternate facts” era of the Trump administration, Obama said one could talk to adversaries and even enemies, but only on the basis of given facts.
There was no discussion to be had with people who just “made stuff up” or who thought that climate change, for instance, was some form of “elaborate hoax” – another reference without name to Trump and his disbelief in global warming and accompanying climate change.
The fifth fundamental point was that people, the young in particular, must “not give in to cynicism”.
“People are talking about the triumph of tribalism and the ‘strongman’. But we must not give into that. Ultimately, right makes might, not the other way around.”
Obama received not merely a standing ovation, but several rounds of rousing cheers from an audience which clearly took his words to heart as one of the leading spokesmen for the spirit of Madiba.
Analysts assessing the address said Obama had hit all the right notes and that the timing of his lecture could hardly come at a more auspicious time, especially for the new Ramaphosa administration which was “rolling up its sleeves”, as Obama had put it, to deal with some of the negative developments of recent years, a reference to the economic and social damage done under the two terms in office of former SA President Jacob Zuma.
Obama had been chosen (actually, he said, “gentled ordered” by Graca Machel) to give this important lecture because he represented a great deal of what Mandela stood for, said leading local analysts.
He had provided hope and inspiration for a better world during his tenure as president – and he had done so again at the Mandela lecture. It was generally agreed that Obama had presented a forceful reminder of how far humanity has come over the past century – as well putting the world’s current tensions and uncertainties into proper perspective.
It was also a reminder of how we need to keep the hope and spirit alive of a world in which social justice and democracy could prevail because “we have a better story to tell” than those who would revert to more retrograde forms of governance and human interaction.
Obama had spoken to the ideal of a world in which tolerance, inclusivity and the pursuit of a common good could be and should be the norm.
Considered among his key points was that Obama underlined that the world was at a crossroads where the democratic and social justice gains of the last century were being contested by those who espouse the politics of fear and resentment, fuelled by the contradictions of globalisation, failures of governance and of political and economic elites that had assumed a monopoly of power and wealth.
The latter was driven home by the fact, offered by Obama, that “just a few dozen people control as much wealth as the poorest half of all humanity”.
This rising of the new far right in politics globally was manifested in xenophobia, terrorism, chauvinism, narrow nationalisms, gender inequality, economic greed and authoritarianism.
But Obama had shown how these developments were in direct opposition to the values, ideals and principles embodied by Madiba and the many who had fought for democracy and freedom, not just in South Africa, but elsewhere in Africa and around the world.
Obama had pointed out that, as yet, it was uncertain which of these two contending visions would win. However, he had driven home the point that there was a need by all who believed in equality, justice and true democratic values to resist cynicism, divisions, hatred and corruption and instead be guided by universal principles, including love and servant collective leadership.
Obama will spend the next several days in South Africa working with his foundation in focusing on encouraging young people to “step up to the plate” and contribute “in the spirit of Madiba” to the ongoing development of South Africa, Africa and the world towards a more equal, more humane, more just and more compassionate tomorrow.