Thoughts on Barak Obama’s Mandela lecture, delivered in South Africa 18 July 2018 at the start of celebrations marking the centenary of the birth of the great South African freedom fighter
What a privilege to be at the 16th Mandela Lecture given by former USA President Barrack Obama. Obama confirmed himself as a great orator as he wove a story perfectly aligned with Mandela’s life and politics. He gave us a grand overview of world history from when Mandela was born in rural Eastern Cape, touching on the end of colonialism, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the release of Mandela from prison, up to today. We were reminded of the incredible progress during these 100 years, how Mandela “came to embody the universal aspirations of dispossessed people all around the world” and inspired Obama to “consider the small role [he] might play in bending the arc of the world towards justice”. Then he came to the backlash that now threatens to return us to “an older, a more dangerous, a more brutal way of doing business”. It was a backlash seen in the 9-11 attack, a politics of fear and resentment, a return to strong man politics with those in power undermining the core institutions of democracy. With this Obama set us up for the conclusion built around the challenges of today that he is confident the youth of today, like Mandela in the past, can meet with a belief in “equality and justice and freedom and multi-racial democracy built on the premise that all people are created equal.”
The speech was uplifting and well received, he was at his best, as was Mandela, in extoling the positive common values of humanity and the power (“right makes might”) of being decent people: “we should treat each other with care and respect.” He reminded us that we are not born hating people who are different from us and “if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love for love comes more naturally to the human heart.” It was hard not to get a little caught up by his message as he implored us all to “follow Madiba’s example of persistence and of hope” and to “resist that cynicism.” Who could object when he called on young people to “keep believing, keep marching, keep building, keep raising your voice!”
Despite the fine oratory, I found myself questioning Obama’s narrative. I wondered what exactly went wrong with the path of progress he told us about and what exactly we need to “keep building”? The history was of necessity sweeping, but the fundamental flaws are not due to brevity, they are reflective of a particular world view that is part of the problem. His progress was a western one combined with the fall of dictators in Africa and Asia. Russia and China were only mentioned negatively with comments such as China bristling at criticisms of its human rights record and needing to “stop taking intellectual property and hacking our servers”.
Obama repeated an assumed linear path of progress that links liberal democracy, human rights, economic liberalisation, innovation and scientific breakthroughs. One of the great results of this, he said, being that “suddenly a billion people were lifted out of poverty”. As much as this is a common narrative, it has also been strongly challenged by many historians and other scholars. The reality of how and where those billion people were lifted out of poverty contradicts his core argument as at least half of them are in China, which has not embraced liberal democracy and human rights. Yet there was no mention of China’s contribution or learning from their successes.
In explaining the “backlash”, Obama contradicted his own story of how much had been achieved, acknowledging that “for far too many people, the more things have changed, the more things stayed the same” and that there has been an “explosion in economic inequality.” Governments and powerful elites, Obama told us, failed to address the contradictions. What he didn’t give us is any analysis of why they failed to address these contradictions and what could be done differently today to avoid such a failing in future.
Obama calls on us to counter the return to the bad old days, with a return to the good old days of “an “inclusive capitalism” combined with government regulation and people paying taxes so that we can have education for all, worker’s rights, universal health care, and break up monopolies. And the rich should be willing to pay taxes because, “there is really only so much you can eat, only so big a house you can have.” Popular sentiments indeed, but very short on analysis of what drives accumulation and what blocked such initiatives in the past, including his own efforts as President of the USA.
Part of what was so alluring about the speech is that Obama mentioned many of the pressing challenges we know about: inequality; climate change; billions or even trillions of dollars being moved around the world at the click of a button; the rich and powerful out of touch with the people; technology threatening jobs; the concentration of political power following the concentration of wealth; corruption; etc. But, there was little substance and nothing new. He gave no indication of how nation states could, under these circumstances, effectively tax the rich, no new idea for how to shift power from the economic and political elites towards the majority of people. There was also the irony of him telling us about how wealth buys political power as he shared the stage with our millionaire President Ramaphosa and our favourite billionaire Patrice Motsepe. Yes, he implored us to stand for what is right, to embrace common human values, but there were people doing this before, we had movements in the past, we had Mandela (we had Obama) and all the while the serious problems he pointed out grew.
Obama never explained how it is that he, as a person who believes in equality and justice and human rights for all, enforced trade deals that destroyed jobs in the USA and elsewhere, ordered the murder with drones of people – and those who happened to be near them – who never had access to justice, or how he financed and condoned the brutal and murderous persecution of Palestinians. What happened to “treating people with care and respect” when he made these and other decisions that directly and indirectly destroyed so many people’s lives? He didn’t tell us what power was at work in such decisions and how that power could be overcome. There could be very useful lessons from such a discussion that he is uniquely placed to assist us with.
Most disappointing for me was the extent to which Obama stuck with old binary positions and only one right economic model. He said we “stand at a crossroads” with “two very different visions of humanity’s future”, we have a choice between right and wrong, between democracy or authoritarianism, between state socialism or capitalism. He argued that we know what works, “look at the history books”, but he didn’t mention that the best of social democratic successes, that he was clearly referring to, never reached more than a small part of the world’s population, nor did he explain why these successes were being rolled back long before 9-11 and before Trump came to power. Indeed, we should look at history, but not a one-sided history and not to find blue prints, rather to avoid repeating the same mistakes. There is no reason to believe that the outcomes of Obama’s “inclusive capitalism” will be any different than the outcomes of capitalism in the past. He said a lot of good things about what is needed for democracy, but nothing about how the economy could be structured differently from how it is now and was in the past.
I clapped and cheered for some of Obama’s well-made arguments and we should certainly respect the dignity and rights of all people, but please let us not buy this American dream, even when so well packaged. It is not working well for most black Americans or for poor and middleclass Americans, let alone for people in poverty in the rest of the world. It is not working well for the environment. We need to move beyond binary options to change the terms of the debate and seek new ways of living with each other and our planet. As Obama said, we need to go to the grassroots, but this should not be only for the political engagement he talked of. We need to learn from the majority of people across Africa who are creating their economic lives under difficult circumstance. We can especially learn from those who are resisting inclusion into the corporate capitalist order. It is these people, at the grassroots, who are perhaps reimagining in practice a more human economy that doesn’t leave them depending on grants or the benevolence of billionaires. We need to build on peoples’ ideas and everyday activities to ensure that the majority are the owners and primary beneficiaries within economies that meet their aspirations.
First published in the South African newspaper City Press, 22 July 2018