Opinion: Mandela and Obama: The Saint and The Sinner

By: Professor Adekeye Adebajo

What is often lacking in South Africa’s political discourse is a sense of proportion. Some of the histrionic reactions to former US president, Barack Obama, delivering the centenary Nelson Mandela lecture in Johannesburg last week, were beyond absurd. That the most powerful black man in the history of civilisation could not honour the most famous black man that ever lived, was simply preposterous. Such critics were mute when former United States (US) president, Bill Clinton, and former United Nations (UN) Secretary-General, Kofi Annan – who had both failed to respond courageously to the 1994 Rwandan genocide – as well as Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the former Liberian president – who had financially supported the warlord, Charles Taylor, at the start of the country’s civil war – delivered the Mandela lecture. Does Clinton really have more legitimacy to deliver such a lecture than Obama?

Both Mandela and Obama were the first black presidents of their countries; both were Nobel peace laureates; both greatly admired Mahatma Gandhi; both were tall, lanky lawyers; and both set up foundations named after them. But whereas Mandela was the saint, spending 27 years in jail for his beliefs, before acting as a black Moses in leading his people to the promised land of liberation; Obama, in contrast, was the sinner, the sorcerer and false prophet, Elymas, who led his people into a barren wilderness.

Obama lacked the courage of his conviction and effectively became a servant of Empire: he militarised US policy towards Africa and rendered Libya anarchic and acephalous in the misguided 2011 North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) “regime change” intervention. He also unleashed drone warfare in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Mali which killed an estimated 3,500 people, including many innocent civilians. Despite claiming to be promoting “strong institutions rather than strong men,” he supported the military autocracy of Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi with an annual $1 billion.

More positively, Obama achieved a landmark health-care bill, restored diplomatic relations with Cuba, and reached a historic nuclear deal with Iran: all three achievements that are now being unravelled by his belligerent successor, Donald Trump. Mandela’s saintliness has also sometimes been questioned. He could be intolerant of criticism – as the sacking from his cabinet of Pallo Jordan and Bantu Holomisa demonstrated. As the national high priest of reconciliation, “Madiba” (Mandela’s clan name) has also, more recently, been accused of failing to address South Africa’s racially-skewed structural inequalities, and of instead forgiving South Africa’s former white oppressors without a proper penance or reparation. Mandela also disastrously linked his name to that of the grotesque and brutal nineteenth century imperialist, Cecil Rhodes, in the Mandela Rhodes Foundation of 2002.

Obama had delivered the most eloquent eulogy at Mandela’s memorial service in Johannesburg in December 2013, describing him as “a giant of history, who moved a nation towards justice, and in the process moved billions around the world…the last great liberator of the 20th century.” His Mandela lecture in Johannesburg was, in contrast, disappointingly policy-wonkish and uninspirational. In a clear dig at his nativist successor as US president, Obama started by bemoaning the “strange and uncertain times” and “head-spinning headlines” of the current age. He noted that Mandela symbolised the “universal aspirations of dispossessed people all over the world,” acknowledging that Madiba had inspired him to become a political activist to fight against social injustice in the late 1970s. Obama praised the “grace and generosity” with which Mandela had embraced his former enemies, and the wisdom he demonstrated in stepping down after only one presidential term.

But most of Obama’s speech presented a broad historical sweep of the major social movements and developments in world history: democracy, decolonisation, civil rights, technology, globalisation, trans-national terror. His central message was a staunch defence of liberal democracy as the only accountable system, in contrast to zero-sum nationalism, Chinese autocratic mercantilism, and strongman rule in Russia and beyond that could lead to conflicts. He criticised the “politics of populism,” and continuously stressed the need to protect a free press in order to safeguard democracy.

Obama further condemned the promotion of anti-intellectualism and a denial of science and facts, in another unsubtle dig at his presidential successor. He was particularly scathing in lambasting the “explosion in economic inequality” and the avaricious perverseness of a few dozen billionaires controlling more wealth than 75% of the global population. He called instead for more human solidarity from the super-rich, and a greater awareness of the impact of their decisions on the poorest segments of society. Obama thus advocated an inclusive market-based system in which wealth was more equitably distributed. He championed Mandela’s lesson in recognising a common humanity in the spirit of Ubuntu.

As the Johannesburg sun set on Obama’s Mandela lecture, it was interesting to contrast the legacies of two of the most powerful and influential black figures in world history: one a saint, the other a sinner.

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa.

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