Obama’s cautionary message for SA

William Saunderson-Meyer says former US President's words could be read as applying to us, not just Trump


When someone arrives in Casualty with blood streaming from gaping wounds, the sole goal is to ensure survival. The patient gets bandages, drips, splints, stitches and surgery.

They don’t get chided for their poor life choices. There’s no lecture pointing out that the lifestyles they adopted would inevitably, eventually, put them drunk behind that steering wheel or belligerent into that shebeen.

So, too, in our politics. Following the destructive Zuma years, South Africa suddenly finds itself on that stretcher in Casualty. It is battered, bloody and bewildered. It is uncertain as to how that cruise along the Rainbow Highway suddenly ended with a crash at the end of a cul-de-sac.

Our analysts, commentators and politicians are thus understandably focused solely on political triage. Staunch the corruption, tie-off state capture. Increase accountability, boost institutional robustness.

That’s all necessary. But for long time survival, one must look at the underlying health of the nation, at the strength of its heart and the state of its soul.

The Nelson Mandela Foundation lecture, marking the centenary of his birth, is an appropriate a moment. That it was delivered by Barack Obama is apposite.

The degree of antipathy that the former United States president arouses in America is disconcerting. It seems completely disproportionate to even a partisan assessment of his two-term performance.

The visceral nature of the animosity has, one suspects, much to do with the symbolism of Obama’s election. Here we had the first mixed-race president, of immigrant ancestry tied to a feared religion, with an optimistic, elegantly articulated, egalitarian and internationalist philosophy.

But Tuesday’s rapturous reception of Obama is not unexpected. He was, after all, speaking to 15,000 people of a generally liberal mindset, who mostly believe in human rights and human solidarity, within a framework of what Obama calls “inclusive, market-based capitalism”, no longer “unregulated, unbridled, unethical”.

It was not his best oration. Like much of Obama’s rhetoric, it was high on inspirational ideals and short on how to achieve them.

But, aside from the fact that it would have been inappropriate for the former US leader to tell a local audience that included President Cyril Ramaphosa, what it should be doing, this is not why Obama was here. He was invited so as to sooth the weary South African soul, to renew hope in something above the tawdry reality of our daily politics.

Speaking, as he did, in apparent generalities, gives the audience carte blanche to extrapolate to fit their own realities. We each see in the mirror what we want to see.

Obama said the world, post-Mandela, was at a crossroads. He decried the view that “politics is a hostile competition between tribes and races and religions, and nations compete in a zero-sum game”. 

He spoke also of the need for debate, for compromise and a respect of both your opponent and the facts. He took aim at the “politics of fear and resentment” and leaders who, caught lying, “just double down and lie some more”.

Commentators, seemingly unanimously, interpreted all these remarks, although he never mentioned Donald Trump by name, solely as references to his successor. The BBC said the speech was “thinly veiled” criticism of the Trump administration, as did Associated Press, Vanity Fair, The New York Times, and an array of others.

None of the commentators I read, not even local ones, pointed out that these words, as tellingly, describe the ugly side of SA today. Not noticing and acknowledging this diplomatically phrased but cautionary parallel text, especially as it relates to our growing racial rancour, is a little bizarre. 

For example, Obama said it was astonishing that more than a quarter of a century after Mandela’s release “we have to affirm this truth today … each individual has inherent dignity and worth”. While Mandela never “stopped being proud of his tribal heritage, of being a black man… he believed you can be proud of your heritage without denigrating those of a different heritage”. Obama then quotes Mandela: “I detest racialism, whether it comes from a black man or a white man.”

Madiba showed, said Obama, the necessity of engaging with people who “not only look different but hold different views. This is hard…” Obama picks up on another, much quoted but increasingly challenged observation: “To make peace with an enemy, one must work with that enemy, and that enemy becomes one's partner.”

Obama then comes to what I believe is the crux of his address, within today’s South African context: “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.”

Mandela understood the complexity of SA’s multilingual, multiracial society, and the need to involve all in building a democratic society, said Obama. “So those who traffic in absolutes when it comes to policy, whether it's on the left or the right, they make democracy unworkable.”

The value of the Mandela centenary, and of Obama’s lecture, is the reminder that we have to do more than triage the ever-escalating crises that afflict SA. To survive the long haul, we have to replenish ourselves of the humanity and values, forged in terrible adversity, that shaped Madiba.

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