Barack Obama Delivers Speech in South Africa Celebrating Nelson Mandela’s Life and Legacy

Former President Barack Obama speaks in Johannesburg on Tuesday at the centennial of Nelson Mandela’s birth.
Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images

Former President Barack Obama celebrated Nelson Mandela’s life and legacy in South Africa on Tuesday with a speech that focused not only on the freedom Mandela came to symbolize, but the long walk it took to get there.

“We have to follow Madiba’s example of persistence and hope,” Obama said, using Mandela’s clan name. “It’s tempting right now to give in to cynicism. To believe that recent shifts in global politics are too powerful to push back. That the pendulum has swung permanently. Just as people spoke about the triumph of democracy in the ’90s, now you’re hearing people talk about the end of democracy and the triumph of tribalism and the strong man. We have to resist that cynicism, because we’ve been through darker times.”

It was one of Obama’s most high-profile appearances since leaving the White House 18 months ago and a preview of what could be an active campaign schedule for the former president before the midterm elections this fall.

Obama spoke to a crowd of about 15,000 in a Johannesburg cricket stadium on the eve of what would have been Mandela’s 100th birthday. He remarked on the progress that swept the globe during Mandela’s lifetime — with greater prosperity and opportunity — but also that backlash that followed in recent years, in the wake of inequality and insecurity.

“A politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment began to appear and that kind of politics is now on the move,” Obama said. “It is in part because of the failures of governments and powerful elites to squarely address the shortcomings and contradictions of this international order that we now see much of the world threatening to return to an older, a more dangerous, a more brutal way of doing business.”

Obama argued that progressives need to push back against those trends by emphasizing more inclusive opportunity and international cooperation.

“We have a better story to tell,” he said. “But to say that our vision for the future is better is not to say that it will inevitably win. Because history also shows the power of fear.”

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SOURCE: NPR, Scott Horsley