Barack Obama gave a heck of a speech in Johannesburg yesterday, a real speech, an honest and inspiring speech celebrating Nelson Mandela’s centenary. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa also gave the model American President a heck of an introduction. Enjoy them both… and remember, in the Trump post-truth world, if you don’t like anything you hear, just insert “not” and assume that’s what they meant to say in the first place.
Among the remarkable statements of these remarkable men:
Now, as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of [Mandela’s] birth, we are called upon not only to uphold his values and to emulate his humility and his selflessness.
We are called upon by Madiba to be active in the struggle for a better South Africa, a better Africa and a better world.
Madiba’s enduring legacy is that he expects us to fight for the interests of the poor, the vulnerable and the marginalised.
We are called upon by Madiba to prosecute a progressive struggle against inequality, racial discrimination, ethnic chauvinism and patriarchy.
We are called upon by Madiba to join hands with like-minded people around the world to resist the domination of global affairs by the rich and the powerful.
He calls upon us to heal our nation and to change the world….
It is therefore fitting that in this year of Madiba’s centenary, the Nelson Mandela Foundation has invited President Barack Obama to deliver the 16th Nelson Mandela Nelson Annual Lecture.
Many people around the world dream of being like Madiba. I have laid in my bed many times and dreamt of being like Madiba. Many never see their dreams fulfilled.
But President Barack Obama somehow found a way to beat many of us in being like Madiba.
Like Madiba, he is a Nobel Peace Laureate.
Like Madiba, he was the first African-American President to lead his nation.
Like Madiba, he is an inspiration to all those who are working and seeking to create a better world.
And like Madiba, he has an abiding love and commitment to empower young people.
And in case you think like a politician I’m lying, I checked this out with him, and he confessed that yes, he can do a little bit of a shake, but Michelle Obama is a better dancer than he is.
As South Africans, we celebrated President Obama’s election as the 44thPresident of the United States, not merely because he was a son of this continent, but because he embodied many of the values and aspirations that defined our struggle for liberation.
We recognised in him the qualities that we saw in great leaders like Nelson Mandela – humility, wisdom, compassion and an extraordinary ability to inspire hope and to urge a nation to action.
We saw a leader who had dedicated a remarkable political life to challenging prejudice and discrimination, to championing the cause of the poor and disenfranchised people, and to pursuing justice and equality.
In him, we found an American President concerned as much about the fate of humanity as the future of his own countrymen and women; a leader who recognised the indivisibility of the global community and who desired, like us, to forge a common future.
In him, President Barack Obama, we found an ally. We found a friend. We found a kindred spirit, and we found a brother [links added; President Cyril Ramaphosa, remarks at the 16th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture, Wanderers Stadium, Johannesburg, South Africa, 2018.07.17].
[on winter in South Africa]: I forgot my geography and the fact that right now it’s winter in South Africa. I didn’t bring a coat, and this morning I had to send somebody out to the mall because I am wearing long johns. I was born in Hawaii.
[on Mandela’s global influence]: It was in service of this long walk towards freedom and justice and equal opportunity that Nelson Mandela devoted his life.
At the outset, his struggle was particular to this place, to his homeland – a fight to end apartheid, a fight to ensure lasting political and social and economic equality for its disenfranchised non-white citizens.
But through his sacrifice and unwavering leadership and, perhaps most of all, through his moral example, Mandela and the movement he led would come to signify something larger. He came to embody the universal aspirations of dispossessed people all around the world, their hopes for a better life, the possibility of a moral transformation in the conduct of human affairs.
Madiba’s light shone so brightly, even from that narrow Robben Island cell, that in the late ‘70s he could inspire a young college student on the other side of the world to reexamine his own priorities, could make me consider the small role I might play in bending the arc of the world towards justice.
[on how Mandela teaches us to treat our oppressors when we beat them] …as Madiba guided this nation through negotiation painstakingly, reconciliation, its first fair and free elections; as we all witnessed the grace and the generosity with which he embraced former enemies, the wisdom for him to step away from power once he felt his job was complete, we understood that – we understood it was not just the subjugated, the oppressed who were being freed from the shackles of the past. The subjugator was being offered a gift, being given a chance to see in a new way, being given a chance to participate in the work of building a better world.
And during the last decades of the 20th century, the progressive, democratic vision that Nelson Mandela represented in many ways set the terms of international political debate.
[on how wealth and privilege insulate the “new international elite” from the harmful effects of their exercise of “disproportionate economic clout”]: …too often, these decisions are also made without reference to notions of human solidarity – or a ground-level understanding of the consequences that will be felt by particular people in particular communities by the decisions that are made. And from their board rooms or retreats, global decision-makers don’t get a chance to see sometimes the pain in the faces of laid-off workers.
Their kids don’t suffer when cuts in public education and health care result as a consequence of a reduced tax base because of tax avoidance. They can’t hear the resentment of an older tradesman when he complains that a newcomer doesn’t speak his language on a job site where he once worked.
They’re less subject to the discomfort and the displacement that some of their countrymen may feel as globalisation scrambles not only existing economic arrangements, but traditional social and religious mores.
Which is why, at the end of the 20th century, while some Western commentators were declaring the end of history and the inevitable triumph of liberal democracy and the virtues of the global supply chain, so many missed signs of a brewing backlash – a backlash that arrived in so many forms.
[on threats to the triumph of Mandela’s vision of universal human rights and democracy]: Strongman politics are ascendant suddenly, whereby elections and some pretence of democracy are maintained – the form of it – but those in power seek to undermine every institution or norm that gives democracy meaning.
In the West, you’ve got far-right parties that oftentimes are based not just on platforms of protectionism and closed borders, but also on barely hidden racial nationalism. Many developing countries now are looking at China’s model of authoritarian control combined with mercantilist capitalism as preferable to the messiness of democracy. Who needs free speech as long as the economy is going good?
The free press is under attack. Censorship and state control of media is on the rise. Social media – once seen as a mechanism to promote knowledge and understanding and solidarity – has proved to be just as effective promoting hatred and paranoia and propaganda and conspiracy theories.
[on the historical evidence that democracy and common humanity are more durable and successful that fearful authoritarianism]: I believe in a vision of equality and justice and freedom and multi-racial democracy, built on the premise that all people are created equal, and they’re endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights. And I believe that a world governed by such principles is possible and that it can achieve more peace and more cooperation in pursuit of a common good. That’s what I believe.
And I believe we have no choice but to move forward; that those of us who believe in democracy and civil rights and a common humanity have a better story to tell. And I believe this not just based on sentiment, I believe it based on hard evidence.
The fact that the world’s most prosperous and successful societies, the ones with the highest living standards and the highest levels of satisfaction among their people, happen to be those which have most closely approximated the liberal, progressive ideal that we talk about and have nurtured the talents and contributions of all their citizens.
The fact that authoritarian governments have been shown time and time again to breed corruption, because they’re not accountable; to repress their people; to lose touch eventually with reality; to engage in bigger and bigger lies that ultimately result in economic and political and cultural and scientific stagnation. Look at history. Look at the facts.
The fact that countries which rely on rabid nationalism and xenophobia and doctrines of tribal, racial or religious superiority as their main organizing principle, the thing that holds people together – eventually those countries find themselves consumed by civil war or external war. Check the history books.
The fact that technology cannot be put back in a bottle, so we’re stuck with the fact that we now live close together and populations are going to be moving, and environmental challenges are not going to go away on their own, so that the only way to effectively address problems like climate change or mass migration or pandemic disease will be to develop systems for more international cooperation, not less.
We have a better story to tell. But to say that our vision for the future is better is not to say that it will inevitably win.
Because history also shows the power of fear. History shows the lasting hold of greed and the desire to dominate others in the minds of men. Especially men. History shows how easily people can be convinced to turn on those who look different, or worship God in a different way.
[on the importance of economic justice to political justice]: I don’t believe in economic determinism. Human beings don’t live on bread alone. But they need bread. And history shows that societies which tolerate vast differences in wealth feed resentments and reduce solidarity and actually grow more slowly; and that once people achieve more than mere subsistence, then they’re measuring their well-being by how they compare to their neighbours, and whether their children can expect to live a better life.
And when economic power is concentrated in the hands of the few, history also shows that political power is sure to follow – and that dynamic eats away at democracy. Sometimes it may be straight-out corruption, but sometimes it may not involve the exchange of money; it’s just folks who are that wealthy get what they want, and it undermines human freedom.
And Madiba understood this. This is not new. He warned us about this. He said: “Where globalisation means, as it so often does, that the rich and the powerful now have new means to further enrich and empower themselves at the cost of the poorer and the weaker, [then] we have a responsibility to protest in the name of universal freedom.” That’s what he said.
[in which Obama reminds us he’s neither a Soviet socialist nor an anarcho-capitalist]: …we can learn from the last 70 years that it will not involve unregulated, unbridled, unethical capitalism. It also won’t involve old-style command-and-control socialism from the top. That was tried; it didn’t work very well.
For almost all countries, progress is going to depend on an inclusive market-based system – one that offers education for every child; that protects collective bargaining and secures the rights of every worker – that breaks up monopolies to encourage competition in small and medium-sized businesses; and has laws that root out corruption and ensures fair dealing in business; that maintains some form of progressive taxation so that rich people are still rich but they’re giving a little bit back to make sure that everybody else has something to pay for universal health care and retirement security, and invests in infrastructure and scientific research that builds platforms for innovation.
[on the “poverty of ambition” in the selfish pursuit of wealth]: You don’t have to take a vow of poverty just to say, “Well, let me help out and let a few of the other folks – let me look at that child out there who doesn’t have enough to eat or needs some school fees, let me help him out. I’ll pay a little more in taxes. It’s okay. I can afford it.”
I mean, it shows a poverty of ambition to just want to take more and more and more, instead of saying, “Wow, I’ve got so much. Who can I help? How can I give more and more and more?” That’s ambition. That’s impact. That’s influence. What an amazing gift to be able to help people, not just yourself.
Where was I? I ad-libbed. You get the point: it involves promoting an inclusive capitalism both within nations and between nations.
[Consider the difference between the innate good and generosity that spills forth when Barack Obama ad-libs and the things Donald Trump says when he departs from his script and speaks from his heart.]
[in which Obama expresses dismay that he still has to argue the all people are created equal]: 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.
Now, it’s surprising that we have to affirm this truth today. More than a quarter century after Madiba walked out of prison, I still have to stand here at a lecture and devote some time to saying that black people and white people and Asian people and Latin American people and women and men and gays and straights, that we are all human, that our differences are superficial, and that we should treat each other with care and respect.
I would have thought we would have figured that out by now. I thought that basic notion was well established. But it turns out, as we’re seeing in this recent drift into reactionary politics, that the struggle for basic justice is never truly finished.
[on fitting healthy national pride in an embrace of universal values and common humanity]: Embracing our common humanity does not mean that we have to abandon our unique ethnic and national and religious identities.
Madiba never stopped being proud of his tribal heritage. He didn’t stop being proud of being a black man and being a South African.
But he believed, as I believe, that you can be proud of your heritage without denigrating those of a different heritage. In fact, you dishonor your heritage. It would make me think that you’re a little insecure about your heritage if you’ve got to put somebody else’s heritage down. Yeah, that’s right. Don’t you get a sense sometimes – again, I’m ad-libbing here – that these people who are so intent on putting people down and puffing themselves up that they’re small-hearted, that there’s something they’re just afraid of.
[in which Obama says we can control borders and respect humanity]: In the West’s current debate around immigration, for example, it’s not wrong to insist that national borders matter; whether you’re a citizen or not is going to matter to a government, that laws need to be followed; that in the public realm newcomers should make an effort to adapt to the language and customs of their new home. Those are legitimate things and we have to be able to engage people who do feel as if things are not orderly.
But that can’t be an excuse for immigration policies based on race, or ethnicity, or religion. There’s got to be some consistency. And we can enforce the law while respecting the essential humanity of those who are striving for a better life. For a mother with a child in her arms, we can recognise that could be somebody in our family, that could be my child.
[in which Barack Obama tells you to get involved in local politics]: So for those of us who are interested in strengthening democracy, let’s also stop – it’s time for us to stop paying all of our attention to the world’s capitals and the centers of power and to start focusing more on the grassroots, because that’s where democratic legitimacy comes from. Not from the top down, not from abstract theories, not just from experts, but from the bottom up. Knowing the lives of those who are struggling.
As a community organiser, I learned as much from a laid-off steel worker in Chicago or a single mom in a poor neighbourhood that I visited as I learned from the finest economists in the Oval Office.
Democracy means being in touch and in tune with life as it’s lived in our communities, and that’s what we should expect from our leaders, and it depends upon cultivating leaders at the grassroots who can help bring about change and implement it on the ground and can tell leaders in fancy buildings, this isn’t working down here.
[on the need to get out of your agreement bubble and talk with those who disagree with you]: And to make democracy work, Madiba shows us that we also have to keep teaching our children, and ourselves – and this is really hard – to engage with people not only who look different but who hold different views. This is hard.
Most of us prefer to surround ourselves with opinions that validate what we already believe. You notice the people who you think are smart are the people who agree with you. Funny how that works.
But democracy demands that we’re able also to get inside the reality of people who are different than us so we can understand their point of view. Maybe we can change their minds, but maybe they’ll change ours.
And you can’t do this if you just out of hand disregard what your opponents have to say from the start. And you can’t do it if you insist that those who aren’t like you – because they’re white, or because they’re male – that somehow there’s no way they can understand what I’m feeling, that somehow they lack standing to speak on certain matters.
Madiba, he lived this complexity. In prison, he studied Afrikaans so that he could better understand the people who were jailing him. And when he got out of prison, he extended a hand to those who had jailed him, because he knew that they had to be a part of the democratic South Africa that he wanted to build.
“To make peace with an enemy,” he wrote, “one must work with that enemy, and that enemy becomes one’s partner.”
[on rejecting Trumpist relativism and accepting objective, universal facts]: And I should add for this to work, we have to actually believe in an objective reality. This is another one of these things that I didn’t have to lecture about. You have to believe in facts. Without facts, there is no basis for cooperation. If I say this is a podium and you say this is an elephant, it’s going to be hard for us to cooperate.
I can find common ground for those who oppose the Paris Accords because, for example, they might say, well, it’s not going to work, you can’t get everybody to cooperate, or they might say it’s more important for us to provide cheap energy for the poor, even if it means in the short term that there’s more pollution.
At least I can have a debate with them about that and I can show them why I think clean energy is the better path, especially for poor countries, that you can leapfrog old technologies.
I can’t find common ground if somebody says climate change is just not happening, when almost all of the world’s scientists tell us it is. I don’t know where to start talking to you about this. If you start saying it’s an elaborate hoax, I don’t know what to – where do we start?
Unfortunately, too much of politics today seems to reject the very concept of objective truth. People just make stuff up. They just make stuff up.
We see it in state-sponsored propaganda; we see it in internet driven fabrications, we see it in the blurring of lines between news and entertainment, we see the utter loss of shame among political leaders where they’re caught in a lie and they just double down and they lie some more. Politicians have always lied, but it used to be if you caught them lying they’d be like, “Oh man.” Now they just keep on lying.
[in which Barack Obama plugs Dakota Free Press]: And, as with the denial of rights, the denial of facts runs counter to democracy, it could be its undoing, which is why we must zealously protect independent media; and we have to guard against the tendency for social media to become purely a platform for spectacle, outrage, or disinformation; and we have to insist that our schools teach critical thinking to our young people, not just blind obedience.
[on loving, persisting, hoping, and struggling joyfully]: Madiba reminds us that: “No one is born hating another person because of the color 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.”
Love comes more naturally to the human heart, let’s remember that truth.
Let’s see it as our North Star, let’s be joyful in our struggle to make that truth manifest here on earth so that in 100 years from now, future generations will look back and say, ‘they kept the march going, that’s why we live under new banners of freedom’ [President Barack Obama, remarks at the 16th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture, transcribed by UK Independent, 2018.07.17].
Barack Obama doesn’t have to go back and make excuses for the things he said. Barack Obama opens his mouth, and out comes great guidance for all believers in democracy and human rights.