By Obadiah Mailafia
ON Wednesday 18 July, at a sprawling sports stadium in Johannesburg, former U.S. President Barrack Obama delivered the 16 Nelson Mandela Lecture. It was his first major event since leaving the White House in early 2017.
The lecture also marked the centenary of the birth of the great South African leader and first post-Apartheid President Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. Mandela was born on 18 July 2018. He passed away on 5 December 2013. He would have been a grand old man of 100 on 18 July this year.
The lecture by Obama drew a mammoth crowd estimated at over 14,000. In attendance were South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa and the movers and shakers of that country’s politics, finance and industry as well as members of the diplomatic community.
Like all decent political retirees before him, Obama has studiously avoided having to openly criticise his successor Donald J. Trump. He would have had good reason to do so. Donald Trump has made it a point to undo many of Obama’s achievements, including rescinding the Paris Climate Change Treaty, the Trans-Atlantic Trade Partnership and the Obamacare policy aimed at enhancing access to medicare for the poorest segments of the American population.
During that memorable speech in Johannesburg, the only veiled criticism of the Trump administration was couched in layers of metaphor that only the discerning could unravel. He opined that the times we live in are “strange and uncertain”, adding that “each day’s news cycle is bringing more head-spinning and disturbing headlines…we see much of the world threatening to return to a more dangerous, more brutal, way of doing business”.
Like me, Barrack Obama was a graduate student when Nelson Mandela was released from his 27 years of incarceration by the Apartheid regime in 1990. Of this he says: “I felt the same wave of hope that washed through hearts all around the world.”
When he eventually became a United States Senator Obama took a photograph with President Nelson Mandela. When he himself became President in January 2009 he sent an enlarged copy to Mandela. Madiba always hanged that photograph in his personal office until his last day on earth.
The speech was vintage Obama – a magisterial performance that did not disappoint. He condemned what he regarded as a new form of “strongman politics” anchored on fear, resentment and retrenchment, whereby “those in power seek to undermine every institution or norm that gives democracy meaning”. He also decried the muzzling of the free press and especially social media that in past years had served as a handmaiden to the New Liberty.
Barack Obama made it clear to all who cared to listen that his political philosophy is aligned with that of the apostles of freedom and social justice: “Let me tell you what I believe. I believe in Nelson Mandela’s vision.
I believe in a vision shared by Gandhi and King and Abraham Lincoln.” He also underlined Madiba’s enduring legacy as being not only commitment to freedom and social justice but also belief in our inseparable humanity. “Madiba teaches us that some principles really are universal – and the most important one is the principle that we are bound together by a common humanity and that each individual has inherent dignity and worth.”
Barack Obama acknowledges in his speech that racism, discrimination and inequality still characterise the social landscape of the New South Africa. But he believes they can be overcome through progressive social policies and through the idiom of love which defined Madiba’s way of life and relationship with others. He quoted some of the most memorable lines that came from the pen of the late South African leader: “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart.”
There are many in South Africa today — not least Julius Malema and the Economic Freedom Front, EFF, — who believe that Nelson Mandela sold out the people’s patrimony of land and natural resources in exchange for majoritarian rule.
They are being grossly unfair to Madiba. They fail to realise that the country was on the brink of civil war at the time. If Madiba had insisted on land expropriation and nationalisation of enterprises at the time of majority rule the economy would no doubt have collapsed.
That would not have served anyone’s interest. Nelson Mandela was nobody’s fool. He had been Commander-in-Chief of Umkhonto we Sizwe. He had also been a communist sympathiser, soldier and commissar. He understood the issues all too clearly. But he also appreciated that politics is the art of the possible. It is left to those who come after him to commit to what the Jews term Vivek Olam – to perfect this world.
Barack Obama, like Mandela before him, will go down in history as one of the great personalities of the ages. But I daresay his presidency had little if any impact, on our continent. Unlike Bill Clinton and George Bush, he had no major initiatives that could be said to have improved the development prospects for Africa. He was particularly spiteful towards our country Nigeria.
Barack Obama towed the lines of those world powers who believe that Nigeria’s promise of greatness must be run aground. At the lowest points in our economic history, he took the decision to ban Nigerian oil from entering the American market. Each time the State Department put Abuja on his African safari, he always used a red pen to cross it out.
Some of his Harvard Law School mates happened to be good friends of mine: Segun Akin-Olugbade, Vice-President and General Counsel to the African Finance Corporation, AFC, and former Foreign Minister Odein Ajumogobia. I understand that our current Minister of State for Petroleum Emmanuel Kachikwu was also a classmate of his. These were very gifted young men from affluent Nigerian families. They did not defer to anyone at Harvard.
And I understand they threw in their lot with Obama in getting him elected as first black president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review. It was the launching pad that brought him into the kind of limelight that paved the way to the high magistracy of the American republic. That he replied our countrymen and women with such spiteful contumely says more about Obama than about our great country.