Prof Njabulo Ndebele: On Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama parallels

18 Jul 2018

Professor  Njabulo Ndebele drew a number of interesting parallels between former US President Barack Obama and South Africa’s great statesman Nelson Mandela.

He did this while presenting the welcome note for the 16th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture which was anchored by Obama. 

Ndebele said Obama has confronted the global challenges … in ways that very few have. He has been in the crucible in ways reminiscent of Madiba during the dangerous and turbulent 1990s here in South Africa.”

Here follows the Obama focused extract from the Ndebele note:

Ten years ago progressive people around the world welcomed the election of a new President of the United States. Barack Obama. A leader who sought to bring hope and renewed optimism to a democracy more than two hundred years old. To many, the Obama Presidency offered, beyond the United States, a dream of a global future that people could aspire to; one that inspired belief in human solidarities that could be forged across national, economic, social, and cultural divides. The realities of office, of course, tested him to the limit.

Embedded histories and resilient structures of power proved to be formidable obstacles. Inclusivity as a democratic ideal had not become strong enough over the centuries of democracy to keep at bay racism, official forms of violence, and class-based insecurities that take on ethnic, racial, and nationalistic forms of expression. To many observers, what we came to see in South Africa as state capture seemed mirrored in the United States and other parts of the world by what we could call more accurately a ‘capture of democracy’.

In this scenario, forces hostile to democracy ultimately attain legitimate electoral mandates only to subvert them. Public discourse shifts from the language of cohesion to that of validating membership in what could be called ‘political tribes’. The persistence of structural racism and of denialism in relation to received structural privilege deepens historic divides, as do the whims of ‘the market’ structured through five centuries of global capitalism. Consequently, multitudes of people across the world live below basic poverty levels and on the margins in every other sense.

In the centenary year of Nelson Mandela, we welcome the voice of President Obama to this platform. He has confronted the global challenges I have alluded to in ways that very few have. He has been in the crucible in ways reminiscent of Madiba during the dangerous and turbulent 1990s here in South Africa. He has things to tell us which are worth listening to. He has ideas which I believe we need as we strive to hear the call of justice and begin to reimagine democracy.

Let us find the Madiba in each of us. Let us each Be the Legacy. Let’s be the citizen who creates with others our common future, to restore beauty, purpose, dignity, and strength to our country. Let us be immensely enriched by this day.

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