Obama on Mandela in Soweto


South African President Cyril Ramaphosa talks to former US President Barack Obama at the 16th Nelson Mandela annual lecture, marking the centenary of the anti-apartheid leader's birth, in Johannesburg, South Africa July 17, 2018.

Nelson Mandela was undoubtedly one of if not ‘the last of the great men, as the concept of greatness retires into the historical shadows’, as Nobel literature laureate J.M. Coetzee suggested in the wake of the statesman’s death.  The annual lecture named for him is meant to honour him, but also meant to honour the person invited to give it.  That is how memorial lectures are supposed to work.

To mark the centenary of his birth, clearly a special guest of high honour had to be invited.  Instead of a lecture hall or a large auditorium, a sports stadium was needed to accommodate all those who would be interested in ‘being there’, in the sense of Jerzy Kosi?ski’s parable about political power in the age of mass media.  And the Nelson Mandela Foundation asked the 44th president of the United States of America, Barack Obama, to do the honour, and to be so honoured.

The more than 90 minutes of introduction before Obama spoke felt a bit odd – part pep rally, part charismatic church meeting, with dashes of sermonising and an audience which sometimes responded as if they were at an award show in the entertainment industry.  Tone and register shifted constantly, but not consistently. Perhaps it was the chill, perhaps it was the inevitable over-investment and over-expectation, the sense that we had to make an occasion of it without turning it into a spectacle.

There was no shortage of honorifics and encomiums as the speakers shifted between praising and jostling one another.  After all, those on the stage were among the most powerful people among the elite of this country.  There was Njabulo Ndebele, a formidable intellectual whose razor-sharp critiques of both apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa were and remain awe-inspiring.  Cyril Ramaphosa, the president of the Republic of South Africa, whom several speakers praised as someone they could respect in that role.  Patrice Motsepe, the billionaire businessman who made some of this possible, and compared his attendance at Mandela’s inauguration in 1994 with his attendance at Obama’s inauguration – which in comparison also signalled what circles of power he moves in.  And Graa Machel, Mandela’s widow.

The audience comprised various local traditional leaders, international guests, and a selection of those South Africans who had responded positively to the invitation, collected it on time, and braved the Highveld chill of Johannesburg mid-winter.  No doubt, as at other such events in this country, including previous Nelson Mandela Memorial Lectures, there were also those who were there to be seen to be there.

Obama, of course, did not disappoint: he is a gifted orator, able to read his audience, and to sweep them up in his speech.  He offered broad analysis of human history and the shifts in the global political economy across the century since Mandela’s birth, deploying a hybrid rhetorical style steeped in the rhetorical tradition of the African Christian churches of the United States and the senatorial-presidential ‘speechifying’ peculiar to American politics.  His was no empty rhetoric, though.  He knows his history, at least from inside the liberal democratic ideological paradigm dominant among members of his class.

He critiqued his own class, of course, to an extent: wealthy elites for whom borders barely matter, and whose lives are such that it did not make much difference whether they were in New York or Mumbai, London or Doha, Johannesburg or Jakarta.  But for most of the people of South Africa, of ‘Mandeland’ as Wole Soyinka spoke of it, that imagined community of the post-millennial post-apartheid polity, location matters.  They were not sharing a stage with two of the wealthiest men in the most unequal society in the world, one their president, and the other his brother-in-law who is also one of the most prominent Black businessmen in the land.

Obama’s remarks about equality, peace and security, of course, were all very appropriate for the moment we find ourselves in.  His caution against ethnocentric political organisation was timely, both for South Africa and for the world as a whole.  Perhaps some of these remarks were less-than-oblique critiques of his successor in the White House, Donald Trump.  No doubt some of it was aimed at European elites struggling with the consequences of global instability.

But the irony, of course, is that some of those problems are the result of policy choices and strategic actions by Obama himself.  Squeezed between the Bush II and Trump administrations, and partly out of some sentimental value placed on his Blackness and the African origin of his father, Obama is seen by many as an enlightened force for good in the world, and he has the Nobel Peace Prize to show for it.  But the very historical record which he insisted his audience consult in their reading of the world also attests to another version of him.  In 2016 alone, the US dropped 26,171 bombs on various locations around the world; as The Guardian indicated, that amounts to 72 per day on average, or three every hour for a whole year.

The irony was therefore not limited to Obama critiquing inequality on a stage with two of the wealthiest men in the most unequal society in the world.  The vision for activism towards global peace was being proposed by someone dubbed the ‘drone warrior in chief’.  The people of Pakistan and Afghanistan may have a different story to tell about Obama’s tenure in office.  The US military also deployed personnel into more countries under his presidency than under his predecessor, the man who is rightly often seen for the hawkish figure. 

A few years ago, when Thomas Piketty delivered the Mandela Memorial Lecture in Klipspruit, there were similar ironies to be observed.  After a talk on inequality in South Africa, in the middle of Soweto, the audience could stuff themselves on food and expensive alcohol.  It is the way of these occasions turned spectacle.  And it is perhaps too late to go back to the core of what a lecture is: an oration to demonstrate thought on a topic, and to guide an audience towards some insights and to further thought on the issues spoken of.

Obama, like Piketty before him, had some difficult truths to tell us, and he did so eloquently.  He was able to weave Mandela into global history in ways often forgotten by those who wish to insulate him in a South African story.  He offered a searing critique of the rightward shift in mode and tone in politics around the world.  These are important things to do in this moment in history.  But we would not be honouring Mandela the intellectual if we did not confront some of the contradictions and ironies of the occasion in his name.  The former emperor of the most powerful military state on the planet came to speak about peace and equality.  We would do well to think about his role in the making of the opposite of those over the eight years he was in power.  This is not to disrespect him, but to honour the man he came to honour, the man who was a fierce intellectual capable of excoriating self-criticism at his best, a man who was not afraid of being criticised in his lifetime, a man who we dare not ossify as a domesticated saint meant only to inspire us to however many minutes of ‘Madiba magic’. 

Mandela committed is life to political change, some of it requiring action, but some of it requiring the deep introspection and thought which marks his writing and his speeches.  Obama came to honour Mandela, and did so eloquently.  Those of us in South Africa and elsewhere who choose to honour Mandela may need to remember the value of critique, so as not to reduce either of these men to the role of ‘prophet’.  Being there is not enough; if we wanted to truly honour Mandela’s legacy, we would take the substance of the lecture and ask ourselves how it spurred our thought further, not only in support of the speaker, but also in critique.

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