Man of the moment: Barack Obama delivers the Nelson Mandela annual lecture speech. Picture: ALON SKUY
Man of the moment: Barack Obama delivers the Nelson Mandela annual lecture speech. Picture: ALON SKUY

When Barack Obama delivered the 16th Nelson Mandela annual lecture at Wanderers stadium in Johannesburg on the eve of Mandela’s centennial, he intended to set the tone for his "post-presidency".

There was no shortage of political heavyweights in the bullring, testimony to the huge global brand that has been built on the foundation of Mandela’s image as a statesman.

Former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan was there, along with former heads of government Kgalema Motlanthe, Mary Robinson of Ireland and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia.

Nelson Mandela Foundation chair Njabulo Ndebele said: "Madiba was able to put up the armour of self-composure when fear was churning inside him."

There were sharp political moments, such as when Graça Machel, after welcoming President Cyril Ramaphosa, said: "I can see Madiba smiling to hear me call him ‘President Ramaphosa’," referring to the fact that Mandela had wanted Ramaphosa to succeed him in 1999.

It fell to Ramaphosa, who had received a standing ovation on his entrance, to introduce Obama.

"I have lain in my bed many times and dreamed of being like Mandela. President Obama found a way to be like Madiba," he said. "There is one area he can’t match Madiba. He can’t dance like Madiba."

In an article published by The Conversation, veteran analyst John Stremlau said that according to Obama’s close adviser, Benjamin J Rhodes, "Obama views this as the most important speech he has given since leaving the White House, one that will set the tone for his post-presidency."

It needed to be more "ambitious, activist and forward-looking" than his speech at Mandela’s memorial in 2013.

Did he deliver?

He started out with a riposte: "I’m a very good dancer. I just want to be clear about that."

Then he laid out a brief history of the past century.

It seemed for a while that the world was on a trajectory of increasing prosperity and democratic accountability. "A billion people were lifted out of poverty. Starving nations were able to feed themselves. All the world’s knowledge could be in the hands of the most remote village."

But that has given way to a news cycle with "more and more head-spinning and disturbing headlines" as ethnic nationalism and greed have reasserted themselves.

"The previous structures of privilege, injustice and exploitation never completely went away. They were never fully dislodged," he said to loud applause.

"The more things have changed, the more they have stayed the same."

By the end of his speech, Obama had the audience eating out of his hand as he called for a new, kinder market system.

"History shows how easily people can be convinced to turn on those who look different. If we are truly to continue Mandela’s long walk to freedom, we’re going to have to work harder, be smarter."

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.