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Mandela-Obama Aura

- Wits University

Reflections on the presidential legacies of Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama.

Former US President, Barack Obama will deliver the highly anticipated annual Nelson Mandela today, 17 July 2018, a day ahead of the centenary birthday of Nelson Mandela, affectionately known as the ‘father of the nation’, one of the most celebrated political leaders across the globe.

The African Centre for the Study of the United States (ACSUS) held a forum last week on Africa-US and global issues under the presidencies of Mandela and Obama. The two former presidents both made history as first black presidents of countries which have histories of racial segregation and oppression.

The half-day forum sought to discuss the intersections of both their legacies, leadership traits and visions for their countries and the world, how have their influences on the global stage converged and diverged and how have they were both portrayed in the media.

Dr Bob Wekesa, Professor John Stremlau, Professor Tawana Kupe, Francis Kornegay

Professor John Stremlau, a visiting professor in International Relations at Wits made some predictions on what the focus of Obama’s speech will be. The Nelson Mandela Lecture will be Obama’s first major address since leaving the presidency. Stremlau said that Obama will have to aim high in his address, which might also present a challenge to the younger generation.

“Obama is going to deliver a very ambitious and activist set of remarks, and this will be interesting. He will remind us all that Madiba belong(ed) to everyone.”

Convergences and divergences of Mandela and Obama’s presidential legacies

Senior Fellow at the Institute for Global Dialogue at the University of South Africa, Francis Kornegay unpacked the intersectional divergences and convergences of Mandela and Obama. Kornegay stated that although there are many similarities between the two former statesmen, comparing and contrasting the two men is complex.

“Both men were of African descent. Both emerged on the global stage at different points in time and from remarkably different vantage points and politically environmental contexts,” said Kornegay.

While both Mandela and Obama qualify as inspirational iconic leaders, one of the distinct differences between them is their age. “One must bear in mind that one of them has passed into history living well into his 90s, whereas the other is not only comparatively young in his political goal. After having spent eight years in the White House, he is still very much a work in progress, with chapters in his biography still to be written.”

Unlike Obama, “Mandela was shaped and seasoned in decades of struggle and adversity against the merciless, ruthless oppressor” and subsequently found himself imprisoned for 27 years. He then rose to greater heights, becoming the first democratically elected president of South Africa.

“Upon his release, he had ascended to the status of a legend that would then devote his presidency for the remainder of his life to the politics of reconciliation and the national healing of divisions,” said Kornegay.

Although both of them have been hailed for their leadership traits, they have also been equally criticised. Kornegay said that Mandela has been criticised for not truly liberating black South Africa, and was seen to have betrayed black aspirations by not negotiating the economic transformation, which would empower the black majority of South Africa.

However, despite the criticisms, both “Mandela and Obama were apostles of hope”.

“They were both facing different but similar versions of the impossible dream,” said Kornegay.

Diplomacy in Africa and soft power

When it comes to the intersections of Mandela’s and Obama’s diplomacy in Africa, both men were active in conflict resolution in Africa. Chris Williams, PhD Candidate at Wits University gave insights on this subject.

“When it came to regional peace-making, Mandela was closely involved in the details and discussions in crafting key policy proposals and, secondly, Mandela relied heavily on South Africa’s own transitions to guide his efforts to make peace elsewhere,” said Williams.

Obama, like Mandela, was willing to be critical of African leaders. “For example, when Obama visited Kenya during his presidency, he spoke in favour of LGBTI rights even though he knew that his host, president Kenyatta, was not in favour of those rights.”

Further comparing the two former presidents, Dr Bob Wekesa, from the School of Journalism at Wits questioned whether their elevated the US and Africa globally. The global icons were active in building their soft power through public diplomacy initiatives, said Wekesa. Mandela mediated in the African crises. Obama, in his public diplomacy initiatives, invited African leaders for the first US-Africa Leaders Summit. In terms of the demonstration of their soft power, Obama, like Mandela, loves children, where he is often pictured with children, said Wekesa.

“There is a form of symbolism between Mandela and Obama,” added Wekesa.  

Mandela, Obama and the media

Media gurus, Brooks Spector, Daily Maverick’s commentator and Andrew Meldrum, Africa Editor for the Associated Press discussed how both Mandela and Obama were portrayed in African and American Media.

According to Spector and Meldrum, both men, through their articulation and speeches succeeded in changing how the media portrayed them towards the end of their careers, by making sure they were no longer portrayed as dangerous and radical as in the beginning of their careers.

“The news coverage in the beginning of their careers rarely failed to mention their skin colours, they focused on that. In Mandela’s case, news stories reported that he was a black African anti-apartheid leader and in Obama’s case most press coverage highlighted that he a black or biracial politician who challenged the exiting political hierarchy, not only in the United States overall, but also challenged the hierarchy within the democratic party,” said Meldrum.