Former US President Barack Obama delivers the 6th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture at Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg on July 17 2018. Picture: MASI LOSI
Former US President Barack Obama delivers the 6th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture at Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg on July 17 2018. Picture: MASI LOSI

Former US president Barack Obama on Tuesday warned of the rise of “strongman politics”, authoritarianism and a brand of nationalism that threatens democracy.

Delivering the Nelson Mandela annual lecture in Johannesburg, Obama — the first African-American to become US president — said the world order had fallen short of the promise it once held.

His message hit home for SA after the administration of former president Jacob Zuma, which took on a decidedly authoritarian and nationalist flavour — the remnants of which continue to have significant influence and presence in the ANC. That nationalist flavour is also conspicuous in opposition parties such as the EFF.

A relaxed Obama took to the stage and playfully corrected President Cyril Ramaphosa, who said he could not dance as well as Mandela did.

But he quickly changed tone and walked the 15,000-strong audience at the Wanderers Stadium through how the world had reached this particularly “dangerous” juncture.

Ramaphosa received a rousing reception from the crowd, who twice gave him a lengthy standing ovation.

This was in stark contrast to the booing Zuma received when Obama delivered a tribute at Mandela’s memorial service back in 2013.

Zuma’s popularity steadily declined after that, culminating in his removal from office in February 2018.

After decades of progress the world was reverting to a more dangerous and brutal way of doing business, Obama said.

“The politics of resentment and fear … began to appeal and that kind of politics is now on the move,” he said.

Obama said the world had to admit that whatever laws may exist, the previous structures of injustice and exploitation never went away. He also described a toxic combination of politics and money.

Former US President Barack Obama, centre, flanked by President Cyril Ramaphosa, left, and Patrice Motsepe greets those in attendance at the 16th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture at Wanderers Stadium on July 17 2018. Picture: MASI LOSI
Former US President Barack Obama, centre, flanked by President Cyril Ramaphosa, left, and Patrice Motsepe greets those in attendance at the 16th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture at Wanderers Stadium on July 17 2018. Picture: MASI LOSI

He traced how the world had arrived at a point in which “strongman politics” was on the rise as well as those with money obtaining political power and control. His comments resonated with the crowd as SA is grappling with the aftermath of an audacious capture of the state by selfish business interests.

Obama’s address was a call to action to those who continued to believe in democracy and civil rights, which he said remained the “better story to tell”.

“So on Madiba’s 100th birthday, we now stand at a crossroads, a moment in time, where two different visions of humanity’s future compete for the hearts and minds of the citizens around the world,” he said.

“Two different stories, two different narratives about who we are and who we should be.”

History had shown that authoritarian governments had bred corruption, as they shunned accountability.

It also showed that countries relying on narrow nationalism and xenophobia as a factor that held them together eventually themselves became consumed by civil war.

“We have a better story to tell, but to say our vision for the future is better is not to say we will necessarily win because history shows the power of fear … how easily people can turn on those who look different or those who worship God in a different way,” Obama said.

He spoke about the subversion of free media as well as social media as a vehicle for hatred and propaganda, and how some politicians openly lied and discarded facts to pursue their own ends.

“As with the denial of rights, the denial of facts run counter to democracy … it can be its undoing,” he said, a message which is true for the US as well as SA.

He said in the 1990s, people spoke about the triumph of democracy, but now people spoke of its “undoing” — a sentiment that had to be resisted.

Former president of the United States of America Barack Obama delivered the 2018 Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in Johannesburg on July 17 2018, marking the 100th anniversary of Mandela’s birth by reflecting on his example of perseverance and vision and what lessons can be drawn from his legacy.

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