Former US president Barack Obama addresses at the 16th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture at the Wanderers Stadium in Illovo, Johannesburg, July 17 2018. Picture: GCIS
Former US president Barack Obama addresses at the 16th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture at the Wanderers Stadium in Illovo, Johannesburg, July 17 2018. Picture: GCIS

It was almost 14 years ago that Barack Obama exploded into the world’s consciousness. The little-known candidate, vying to be the only African-American in the US Senate, gave a rousing speech to the Democratic Party’s national convention. There have been many speeches since then, always with the overriding theme of unity and hope for positive change.

During his time in office and after, he has had his critics.

And there was a lot to criticise. One is his failure to close the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which has served as an open-ended prison for terror suspects apprehended mostly in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The vast majority of the prisoners were held without ever being charged or facing a trial. Despite his promise to close the facility, there were still more than 40 prisoners held there by the time he left office. There was also the accusation that far from stepping back from Bush-era wars, he maintained and even expanded US intervention. On the US domestic front, he was accused of doing more talking, rather than taking concrete action to reverse race-based inequality and injustice.

Obama’s speech also served to highlight that the world has gone backwards in many ways. The values that were assumed to have been entrenched by the fall of communism and the end of apartheid are suddenly on the back foot again.

In all of that time he was never accused of making bad speeches, so it was unlikely that he was going to disappoint the people who went to listen to his Nelson Mandela centenary lecture in Johannesburg on Tuesday.

It was a rousing speech that went back to the old themes of openness and unity. Partly a tribute to the hope that accompanied Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 and a defence of similar values and hopes that were ignited by his own elevation as the first African-American to win the US presidency.

And he was out again on Wednesday, hosting a "town hall" event to mark what would have been Mandela’s 100th birthday.

Obama’s speech also served to highlight that the world has gone backwards in many ways. The values that were assumed to have been entrenched by the fall of communism and the end of apartheid are suddenly on the back foot again.

In Europe, right-wing populism is rising, marked most prominently by the elevation of the far-right League party into an Italian coalition government, gaining support on voter anxiety about immigration and a stagnant economy. That the leader of that party, Matteo Salvini, is also a self-proclaimed admirer of Vladimir Putin tells its own story.

Americans watching Obama’s speech would also have been struck by the contrast with his successor, Donald Trump.

Trump shocked Americans across the political spectrum earlier this week when he declared that he trusted the Russian leader more than his own intelligence services, who found that there was evidence that Russia meddled in the last US election. Almost a year ago, he drew similar criticism when he refused to directly criticise neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville.

He was obviously not very far from Obama’s thoughts when he declared that "strongman politics are ascendant, suddenly, whereby elections and some pretence of democracy are maintained, the form of it, where those in power seek to undermine every institution or norm that gives democracy meaning".

That could have easily been about the South African experience during the Jacob Zuma presidency, when key institutions of democracy were undermined to serve one man and his close associates. For long periods it looked like the promise of the Mandela years had died, but other pillars of democracy — the judiciary and the media especially — stood tall and resisted.

While we may have moved backwards, there is enough hunger for progress for these bumps in the road to be overcome. Perhaps that’s the message the crowd was sending to President Cyril Ramaphosa with its rousing welcome, which was so contrary to the booing during Zuma’s address at Mandela’s memorial service, the last time Obama visited SA.

Ramaphosa has been accused of being too cautious in dealing with the ghosts of the Zuma years, lacking a convincing mandate to lead the ANC. He may find he has it where it matters most.

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