Barack H Obama, the 44th President of the USA, in a chilly Johannesburg delivered his address as gently instructed to come by Ms, Graca Machel. The day itself in programme content elicits commentary for what it presented in the end. It is considered his first major public address since he left office at the beginning of 2017.
While many have found it correct to only engage the message, I wish to advocate that we must engage the message and equally so the bearer if we are honest in attempting to make the Mandela 16th Lecture count. This is a message delivered a stone’s throw away from the richest square mile of Africa. In plush Illovo surroundings on a Bidvest Wanderers Cricket pitch, where South Africa 25 years on still battle to have cricket freed from its apartheid and colonial constructed white identity. In a sense, it can be argued it was the day of the wealthy representing Mandela the icon afforded more than adequate time and space to lecture the poor on who Mandela is.
Anytime Obama addresses a crowd there is bound to be tremendous excitement, loud amens and praise singing commentary mostly in celebration of him. The giftedness of his oratory skills, the influence of scholarly persuasion and the epistemology undergirded by a saturated blend of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela are the philosophical cornerstones defining the prism that frames Barack Hussein Obama in public persona. The SA president was as excited as any fan of Obama, it didn’t help when it was announced Beyoncé was soon visiting, as sponsored by the signpost of our economic liberation Patrice Motsepe, (lol).
Obama’s speech in erudite fashion places the current world in question of where we come from and where we are heading. This, therefore, defines a crossroads where he advocates choices need to be made. Conscious choices to fight for and in defence of an equality of existential being, a common humanity and reinventing of how we approach employment with the youth as the core constituency. Choices compelled and in cognisance of the reality of an ever-increasing technology advancement that by itself continues to redefine meaningful life.
In order to appreciate where we are, he traces back the last century. He places a landmark with a reflection over the last century. It is then helped by placing Mandela in that world as he determines to make the case of crossroads currently faced. He jogs our collective memory of an umwelt and global society a hundred years earlier a time immediately after the end of World War 1 and the death of the fallacy of eugenics. Eugenics, the idea of race superiority informed by the thoughts of Immanuel Kant supported by Carl Linnaeus among others, who as far back as 1785 introduced us to the first formal construction of a racial ideology. Obama bemoans the fact that in some senses we are back here.
He reminded his audience that Mandela was born at the intersection of the moment when a cry for a common humanity thrust itself upon what was then a fragmented world context since wars, hate and acrimony and the dictating of imperial forces defined that epoch. He takes us back to a time to pause and observe the advent of liberation movements, ultimately a means to defend the rights common to that collective humanity. An era of patriarchal control and where women were reduced to the status of being children. He reminded us it was also an era for nations with market-based economies to see the advent of organised labour fraternities and where in the USA the civil rights movement overthrew what came to be known as Jim Crow laws, a number of laws recognising and enforcing racial segregation in the USA between 1867 – 1965.
Obama then personalises Mandela’s influence on himself as a 1970’s student. He cites the Martin Luther King Jnr, adaptation from the 19th-centurytranscendentalist and Unitarian theologian Theodore Parker who inspired the adage, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”.
Obama raises a timeless point when he leans on the Black Theology patriarch James E Cone and Martin Luther King jnr, who both talked of how liberation also freed the oppressor, by gifting him/her an opportunity to see the world and his/her environment through new lenses. This is an important point to make here, Apartheid and colonial benefactors despite enslaving those they rendered a lesser humanity were also freed by the cause of liberation of the masses. They therefore warrant pausing to realise the cause of liberation was not one dimensional nor was it linear but it was all encompassing. It confirmed that the future of the oppressor and the oppressed remains intrinsically bound.
Obama observantly cautions his audience to see how the last decade at global level witnessed the unfolding of hardened right-wing politics, where race seeks to make again its unwelcomed but forceful re-entrance into global society. He unpacks and shares his understanding of the current geopolitical world and its anomalies, bemoaning that despite the skyscrapers built and seen in many modern cities, life and world for many have remained the same, that of agony and disenfranchisement. It is here that Obama bemoans the disparities of inequality between the ever-increasing rich and the perpetually poor. Clearly, an unsustainable situation if we seek to make that common humanity count.
He for a brief moment talked of a society that evidence a detached community that owes no allegiance to any nation-state or locale and therefore can in one decision destroy many jobs by closing a manufacturing plant and moving their resources. He advocates these do not do so out of sheer malice but often as a rational response.
We have lived through this in Sub-Saharan Africa where many multinationals in a twist of strange political and economic interest perhaps personal, were allowed to divest from SA. Here we involuntarily think of entities like Glencore. Mandy Louw recently in a Daily Maverick article told us about how Ivan Glasenberg, the very secretive SA born billionaire of Glencore singularly has given the tiny village community of Rüschlikon on the outskirts of Zurich, Switzerland (tax haven), where he now resides a tax repository in excess of 360m Swiss francs. According to Louw, the village’s new problem is it has more money than what it knows to spent on. This while Zambia where Glencore gets its copper is trapped in, unemployment hovering around 80%, and 60% of the population lives on less than a dollar a day. According to the BBC documentary, “Real estate prices (Rüschlikon) in are booming, unemployment is virtually non-existent, and social problems are few and rare,” The sad and noteworthy thing is Glencore’s copper mines in Zambia does not generate similar tax windfalls for Zambians,” according to the filmmakers of the documentary.
Obama also paused to underscore the unstoppable reality of technology and its invasive advancement as a presence that is not leaving.
He cautiously took several intermittent swipes at his home state, without once naming Trump, he references the emerging new culture of politics, the same he defines in the politics of fear and resentment. He also labels it strongman politics. Clearly engaging Donald Trump who is known for his unconventional, unorthodox and simply untrustworthy strongman politics of threats against equal sovereign states. We saw this with his initial threats to Mexico, Canada, North Korea, later Iran and who can forget USA allies when he withdraws the ANC from the Iran deal. Obama spared not the moment to plead for the praxis of objective reality. This notion advocates that there must be some basics that are agreed by all as existing independent of those who will engage, as a point of engagement.
Obama in closing out advocates for a grassroots civil mentality and praxis where leadership is bottom up and not from on top. He advances the notion that this hour needs not one leader but a multiplicity of leaders on all fronts. Leaders who are not intolerant of others views and shield themselves only with those whom they agree with. He, in conclusion, gives practical examples of the youth in leadership across Africa as experienced by interventions of his Obama Foundation.
In his address, Obama argues Mandela helps us in charting a tomorrow anchored on three cornerstone principles and spheres that defined the stalwart of liberation’s life, captured as:
- The quest for freedom and democracy is a fight that warrants intensity if we have any hope of reducing inequality and promote lasting economic opportunity for all people. He warns the attaining of this will vary from country to country and it cannot be unregulated, unbridled, unethical capitalism neither will it be possible by way of old-style command-and-control socialism from the top.
- The idea of a universal principle of a common humanity is as important today as always. That common humanity underscores the inherent dignity and worth of each individual.
- Democracy remains the best alternative for governance and it extends the often-easily-limited boundaries of elections. Democracy equally asks for respect and space of minorities in a claim and truth of rights as protected and defended. With this, he advocates democracy is the better way for governance.
In Obama’s mind what is needed in an economic answer for this era is an inclusive market-based system one that among others offers education for every child, that protects collective bargaining and secures the rights of every worker, that break up monopolies to encourage competition in small and medium-sized businesses. He fails to explain the failures of capitalism as a reality in the USA. Clearly, we may ask what is meant with an inclusive market based when both market and inclusive are already defined in SA in race categorisation?
Overall, Obama’s message resonates and his call for democracy as still the viable means to obtain freedom have support. Needless to say, his ongoing work through his Foundation warrants commendation and respect.
Our conflicting challenges with the Obama the messenger
- Messages are best understood in asking who the messenger is. We must then ask who Obama is, unfortunately, Obama the African American is duly calibrated into the praxis of teaching better than living.
Beyond our love for the lanky son of a Kenyan father and an Irish mother, who brought his basketball hoop to the White-House, we must ask why Obama with his celebrated and prognosticated celebrated epistemology of a common humanity and human rights ethic of equality that confirms the embrace of diversity as a global reality came to be known as the WAR president of the 21st Century. We warrant knowing why the conscience of Nelson Mandela could not sway him otherwise. How did and African’s son come to define the global panoply of modern day with war as the sum total of his global contribution, the same wars he bemoans in World war 1 and 11?
- Obama’s message on Mandela however personalised and celebrated unfortunately remains the ongoing sanitizing of Mandela as if the latter’s life started in 1990.
One can’t help but sense Mandela the founder of Umkhonto Sizwe, Mandela the radical is again reduced to the marsh-mellow grandad saint whose history does not chronicle a path of conscious radicalism and militancy and on white oppression, land robbery and black denigration evidenced in an economy that enslaved black people.
May we remind Obama what Mandela said: “Only through hardship, sacrifice and militant action can freedom be won. The struggle is my life. I will continue fighting for freedom until the end of my days” Mandela June 1961
- Unfortunately, Obama fell for and underscored Mandela, the icon, as crafted by white interest and capital. A Mandela dislodged as is so common of many in this epoch, from his undeniable and firm foothold of an ANC Movement that produced him and accords him a status of elasticity as one that eclipses the same movement that produced him. Obama continues the narrative of painting a canvas of a Mandela who is only understood in the cheap reconciliation of rainbowism, the latter as coined by Archbishop Tutu. He too strips the liberation hero who walked out of talks visibly annoyed by the arrogance and utter interest of whites to forego nothing at the dawn of democracy. To dispel the well-sponsored myth of iconic status, let us hear Madiba in his own words on the day of his release, “I stand before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today” Mandela February 11, 1990
- We must ask of Obama the messenger of these 8800 words why he failed to make that common humanity Mandela so eloquently fought to count, when his predecessor the Republican and America’s 43rd President George W Bush with his initiatives remain the one who did more for Africa. This when he as President and his Democrat predecessor W. J Clinton proved effectively cold towards Africa. Why he for his two terms of his office knowing the hope his presidency inspired failed to make Africa count. The platitudes are all good, but action speaks louder.
- On the home front, we must ask of Hussein why he proved indifferent to call a spade a spade when white police officers killed black men. We remember he rightfully disrupted one of his international trips to fly back for the five Dallas Police officers that were brutally gunned down. Yet, Obama showed lest enthusiasm to nakedly engage the plight of the African American on his doorstep and the home front. Obama did not once berate an endemicpolice culture that continued to evidence racial oppression against African Americans. Please tell us why in the USA black parents must still have the talk with their black sons? Perhaps Obama can hear Mandela better in these words, “and let there be no mistake: there have been many changes, and negotiations have started, but for the ordinary black person of this country, apartheid is alive and well.” Mandela said this on the occasion of Hani murder, on April 10. 1993.. These words so easily can be transposed to the blacks in Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas and Florida. There was no need for a campaign of black lives matter which was born in your time. Sir, this is what defines your true legacy.
- We must ask of Barack how he could have led an invasion of Libya and had Muammar Gaddafi savagely annihilated. We need to know how the words of Martin Luther King on the war on Vietnam articulated as ‘a senseless war’ failed to restrain Obama from his choice to invade and destroy a society that was functional and arguably a signpost of prosperity and liberation for local Libyan’s. How does he think Mandela feel for what he has done to his friend?
- We must ask of Obama why he is known as the president that made drone attacks normal. What about the inherent and equal dignity of those who suffered because of these choices?
- We must ask Obama why he on both his trips to honour Mandela never yet considered it necessary to engage in addressing or apologising for the role the USA is rumoured to have played in having Madiba arrested in Howick of the Natal Midlands, and why the files as requested by Ryan Shapiro still is not available.
- We must ask Obama why he allowed his pastor Jeremiah Wright to hang and dry. Wright in an address in Inglewood Los Angeles, the banner ‘A Theology of Hood’ in a small group of theologians where I also attendance bemoaned the fact that, America could deny his spiritual son to talk with him while it allows Obama to talk to Iran’s Ahmadinejad.
- We must know why Obama has not condemned the role multinationals played in support of a heretic and inhumane system called apartheid. Or the role the same played and continues in the upholding of the unsustainable disparities between the rich and the poor, that naturally produces unemployment, inequality and poverty a heretic and inhumane system of apartheid.
In the final analysis, we learn it’s easier to talk of Mandela in a sanitised version of personal history. It is appearing easier to lecture on Mandela the reconciliation champion, the peace-maker and modern-day white interest sponsored icon. It is just not so easy to engage and emulate Mandela because to emulate Mandela one will have to embrace the totality of his identity in both its unnerving radicalism to the point of brutal militancy and his amiability to sit and talk to Betsie Verwoerd.
Can Obama, therefore, lecture us on Mandela? Yes, he can. Can Obama teach us about Mandela? Yes, he can. Should we teach Obama of the radical and militant Mandela? Yes. In the interest of honesty and in true holistic celebration of Mandela, the human, not the man-made saint, demands of us to tell Obama and others, please tell his story but not in a sanitised version.
Mandela was for most of us never an icon, but a liberation fighter one of many in his generation and a part of generations that defines a liberation struggle. Can we tell Obama that Mandela demands personal introspection, so those who demand to teach others must be equally held by the same standards they claim of Mandela?
Finally, can we hear Mandela one more time, …and so we must, constrained by and yet regardless of the accumulated effect of our historical burdens, seize the time to define for ourselves what we want to make our shared destiny, … the purpose that will drive this government shall be the expansion of the frontiers of human fulfilment and the continuous extension of the frontiers of freedom”. SONA 1994
Maybe Rev. Jesse Jackson would have been a more appropriate choice, given the elongated history shared between him and the SA liberation struggle, the message and messenger may have synchronized.