For President Barack Obama, the fight against apartheid — and Nelson Mandela's part in that struggle — was the beginning of his political awakening. On Tuesday, he returned to South Africa to speak in honor of Mandela's 100th birthday, and to reflect on the ways in which the world has changed since Mandela was released from prison in 1990. In contrast to a week of divisive global politics from President Trump, Obama's Mandela speech carried a message of democratic ideals and unity.
"My very first political action, the first thing I ever did that involved an issue or a policy or politics, was a protest against apartheid," Obama said in a statement after Mandela's death in 2013. Speaking on Tuesday to an audience of 15,000 at Johannesburg's Wanderers Cricket Stadium, Obama framed his speech around Mandela's life and the values he espoused, while speaking more broadly about the evolution of democracy, and the ways in which global democracy is being threatened today.
If we cannot deny the strides the world has made since Mandela left prison, we also have to recognize the ways the international order has fallen short of its promise. In fact it is in part because of the failures of governments and powerful elites that we now see much of the world threatening to return to an older, a more dangerous, a more brutal way of doing business.
While he never explicitly mentioned Trump, Monday's summit with Putin, or even the terms "Republican" or "Democrat," Obama's speech (which begins around 2 hours and 17 minutes into the above video) had unmistakable allusions to recent political events like the Trump administration's family separation policy, the rampant spread of lies and political propaganda, and Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Each of these seemed to represent a larger trend that those currently in power are weakening democracy at the expense of average citizens in America, and around the world.
The growing economic disparities that fall along lines of race, gender, and often entire nations, he said, translates to yawning gaps in political power. And while progress has been made, the recent regression, he observes, comes from the fact that previous structures of power, injustice and exploitation were never fully dislodged.
After the 2008 financial crisis, "the politics of fear and resentment and entrenchment began to appear," Obama said. "And that kind of politics is now on the move. Those in power seek to undermine every institution or norm that gives democracy meaning."
Throughout his speech, Obama returned to messages he picked up from Mandela, particularly around the common humanity and inherent worth of all people, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or background. "It’s surprising that we have to affirm this truth today," he said. "I would have thought we would have figured that out by now."
Rather pointedly addressing the recent travel ban and family border separations, he continued on to say that while encouraging immigrants to adapt to the customs and language of their new home, there is no rationale for immigration policies based on race. "We can enforce the law while respecting the essential humanity of those who are striving for a better life," he said.
"For [democracy] to work, we have to actually believe in an objective reality," Obama continued. "This is another one of these things that I didn’t think I had to lecture about: You have to believe in facts." Again, given that according to a CNN analysis, the current president lies about six times every day, this statement seemed directed straight at Trump.
Obama's closing remarks were a call to action for young people and defenders of democracy, as well as a warning to those who would continue to threaten it. "Democracy depends on strong institutions," he said, listing checks and balances, an independent judiciary, free speech, a free press, minority rights, and "everybody following the law" among the necessary tenets — these are all things that Trump has threatened during his time in office from frequently attacking independent media outlets, asserting that the court system is "rigged," and imposing a ban on transgender military service members.
It's tempting to give in to cynicism, Obama said, but "we have to follow Mandela’s example of persistence, and of hope." He believes, he says, as Mandela did, that "those of us who believe in democracy and civil rights and a common humanity have a better story to tell," and that "ultimately the better story can win out."