Obama takes aim at 'strongman politics' in Mandela address

Without ever mentioning President Donald Trump by name, former U.S. president Barack Obama on Tuesday took aim at "strongman politics" in his highest profile speech since leaving office, using an event honouring Nelson Mandela in South Africa to urge people to respect human rights and other values now under threat.

Obama's speech to a cheering crowd of thousands countered many of Trump's policies, rallying people around the world to keep alive the ideas that Mandela worked for including democracy, diversity and tolerance.


Obama was speaking at the 16th annual Nelson Mandela Lecture ahead of Mandela Day on Wednesday, the anniversary of his birth in 1918.

Obama opened by calling today's times "strange and uncertain." He said "each day's news cycle is bringing more head spinning and disturbing headlines." These days "we see much of the world threatening to return to a more dangerous, more brutal way of doing business," he said. 

He targeted politicians pushing "politics of fear, resentment, retrenchment," saying they are on the move "at a pace unimaginable just a few years ago." 

He attacked "strongman politics," saying "those in power seek to undermine every institution … that gives democracy meaning.

He spoke for equality in all forms, saying that "I would have thought we had figured that out by now," and warned that countries that engage in xenophobia "eventually … find themselves consumed by civil war."

Former US President Barack Obama arrives at the Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa, Tuesday, July 17, 2018 to deliver the 16th Annual Nelson Mandela Lecture. Obama urged Africans and people around the world to respect human rights and equal opportunity in his speech to mark the late Nelson Mandela's 100th birthday. (Themba Hadebe/Associated Press)

And he noted the "utter loss of shame among political leaders when they're caught in a lie and they just double down and lie some more," warning that the denial of facts — such as that of climate change — could be the undoing of democracy.

But he told the audience that "we've been through darker times. We've been through lower valleys," and he closed with a call to action: "I say if people can learn to hate, they can be taught to love." 

He received a standing ovation from the crowd of about 14,000 gathered at a cricket stadium.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and Graca Machel, widow of the anti-apartheid leader, introduced Obama for the lecture.

'Eloquent rebuke'

"Just by standing on the stage honouring Nelson Mandela, Obama is delivering an eloquent rebuke to Trump," said John Stremlau, professor of international relations at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, who called the timing auspicious as the commitments that defined the life of Mandela — affectionately called Madiba by South Africans — are "under assault" in the U.S. and elsewhere. 


"Yesterday we had Trump and [Russian President] Putin standing together. Now we are seeing the opposing team: Obama and Mandela," Stremlau said.

This is Obama's first visit to Africa since leaving office in early 2017. He stopped earlier this week in Kenya, where he visited the rural birthplace of his late father.  

Obama's speech highlighted how Nobel Peace Prize winner Mandela, who was imprisoned for 27 years, kept up his campaign against what appeared to be insurmountable odds to end apartheid, South Africa's harsh system of white minority rule. 

Mandela, who was released from prison in 1990 and became South Africa's first black president four years later, died in  2013, leaving a powerful legacy of reconciliation and diversity along with a resistance to inequality, economic and otherwise. 

Groundbreaking role

Obama has shied away from public comment on Trump, whose administration has reversed or attacked what he would consider notable achievements of his presidency. The U.S. under Trump has withdrawn from the 2015 Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal while trying to undercut the Affordable Care Act, also known as "Obamacare."    

Instead of commenting on politics, Obama's speech was drawing on broader themes and his admiration for Mandela, whom America's first black president saw as a mentor. 

Barack Obama, back right, with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, back left, stand behind members of the Soweto Gospel Choir singing the South African national anthem, as the former U.S. president arrives at the Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg on Tuesday for the Mandela Lecture. (Themba Hadebe/Associated Press)

When Obama was a U.S. senator, he had his picture taken with Mandela. After Obama became president, he sent a copy of the photo to Mandela, who kept it in his office. Obama also made a point of visiting Mandela's prison cell, and gave a moving eulogy at Mandela's memorial service in 2013, saying the South African leader's life had inspired him.

Many South Africans view Obama as a successor to Mandela because of his groundbreaking role and his support for racial equality in the U.S. and around the world. 

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