Obama and the Legacy of Mandela

Nelson Mandela would have turned 100 years old yesterday, and South Africa seized the occasion to pay homage to its former leader who became a global icon in the fight against oppression and racial inequality. A symbolic march was led by Mandela’s widow, Graça Machel, ending at the Constitutional Court, a site symbolizing the emergence of democracy in South Africa in 1994. Following the march, there was a forum led by the former president of the United States, Barack Obama, who was the headliner of this national celebration. “Mandela Day” didn’t only belong to South Africa or the African continent, it was celebrated all around the world. The Nelson Mandela Foundation continues to call for action, for change and for routine engagement to strengthen the ideals of the man who dealt the final blow to apartheid.

The culmination of Barack Obama’s Johannesburg stadium speech in front of thousands of South Africans, many of whom were supporters of the African National Congress, was his invoking of the “wave of hope that we felt with Madiba’s release from prison” on Feb. 2, 1990, after 27 years in prison. And four years later, at the end of many decades of a racist white regime, and without any bloodshed, Madiba assumed the highest office of the country, thus becoming the first black president of South Africa. “Through his sacrifice and unwavering leadership and, perhaps most of all, through his moral example, Mandela … came to embody the universal aspirations of dispossessed people all around the world.” In his vibrant homage, Obama saluted “one of history’s true giants” in front of 15,000 people who came to show their commitment to this pioneer of emancipation in a country that still struggles to achieve the noble ideas he tirelessly defended. “Madiba shows those of us who believe in freedom and democracy we are going to have to fight harder to reduce inequality and promote lasting economic opportunity for all people,” said the first black president of the United States, which was all the more significant since he was addressing the most unequal country in the world which, according to the World Bank, is the greatest industrial power on the continent of Africa.

The speech seemed to make a point in the wake of the previous day’s Helsinki Summit, namely the denunciation of “strange and uncertain times” that hang over all people, with a “politics of fear” and “the utter loss of shame among political leaders.” It was a condemnation in keeping with the spirit of the event and which targeted climate change deniers as well as immigration policies based on race and religion.

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