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Comparing and contrasting Mandela-Obama legacies

- Bob Wekesa

What are the connecting threads between Mandela and Obama with regards to their failures and shortcomings?

Calibrated to mark the centennial birthday of the global icon, the 2018 International Mandela Day on 18 July will be the most defining compared to past editions. That former US president Barack Obama will deliver the much-anticipated 16th annual Nelson Mandela Lecture on 17 July gives the commemoration an international stature.

The selection of Obama as keynote speaker elevates the commemorations as the former US president probably enjoys a larger global footprint compared to past speakers such as Bill Clinton, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Thabo Mbeki, Kofi Annan and Bill Gates.

Obama’s involvement in the Mandela commemorations invites questions on the place of the two great men in world politics. How do they compare and contrast and how should we assess their legacies?

What are the intersections of their leadership traits, legacies and visions?

What are the connecting threads between them with regards to their failures and shortcomings?

Are they in fact overrated? What is the impact of their joint-cum-separate impact on Africa-US relations and on the global stage?

Both strike mystical, even messianic images in the eyes of their “followers”, Mandela perhaps more so than Obama.

In part, the reified visages are based on the eloquence, prophetic messaging and soaring speechifying in the course of pursuing difficult agendas in South Africa and the US, as well as globally.

Although both are Nobel Peace Prize laureates, Mandela’s is seen to have been much more deserved while Obama’s was largely based on the euphoria of his 2008 election and announced a few months into his presidency. Mandela’s Nobel Prize was shared with former apartheid-era president FW de Klerk while Obama’s was personal.

Obama was born in 1962, the year Mandela and his comrades formed Umkhonto we Sizwe. Clearly, Mandela sacrificed much more than Obama.

While Obama’s rise was meteoric in that he jumped many notches from being a junior senator straight to the oval office; Mandela’s rise was over a longer arc, much of it forged while he languished in prison, a fate that never befell Obama.

Mandela died in 2013 at 95, as a retired president and statesman, when a 51-year old Obama had just been re-elected for a second term. One of the peaks in Mandela’s political career was reached at the height of the Cold War when he and his comrades were served life imprisonment sentences in 1964; Obama’s major peak was achieved in the post-Cold War era with election as US president. Obama’s eulogy at the memorial service of Mandela on 10 December  2013, is seen not only as one of his finest political moments, but also one that indicated his inheritance of the Madiba spirit. Indeed, Obama’s anticipated speech has been framed as a continuation of the Mandela legacy.

The points of convergence and proximity in the Mandela and Obama personas recline on the fact that they both claim an African heritage and were the first black presidents of their race-challenged nations.

We can speculate that it is for this reason that Mandela and Obama seem closer to each other than they are to other giants of history, such as Abraham Lincoln or Mahatma Gandhi even though the four share civil rights campaigning stripes.

Where Mandela shook hands with and embraced his jailers, Obama symbolised the closing of ranks between black and white Americans. On the whole, it can be argued that both Mandela and Obama are charismatic leaders who drove change at critical stages in their respective countries even as debate rages on the extent or value of their transformational impact on societies.

The entwining of the Mandela-Obama legacies has in fact been going for some time now. Both penned glowing tributes to each other and Obama wrote the foreword to Conversations with Myself, Mandela’s memoirs published in 2010.

Coincidentally, their defining autobiographies; Long Walk to Freedom and Dreams from my Father were published in 1994 and 1995, a year apart, as acts of legacy building.

As great men, Mandela and Obama are endowed with global reputational capital, but their legacies are under siege. Received wisdom is that the significance of “average” national leaders recedes after they leave office; in a sense, “to be out of sight is to be out of mind”.

For great men and women who are considered to belong to the ages, however, reputations keep growing from one generation to another.

But will the legacies of Mandela and Obama endure well into the future as do those of all-time-greats such as Karl Marx, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Mother Teresa, Abraham Lincoln, Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere among others?

A number of factors threaten the inscription of lasting Mandela and Obama legacies in global consciousness.

For instance, in the wake of the death of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in April, critics introduced a narrative of Mandela as a bitter former husband.

Even though Obama’s marriage to former First Lady Michelle Obama remains intact, Mandela’s troubled marriages mirrors Obama’s own life, as the union between his American mother and Kenyan father broke early in his childhood.

Some have gone so far as to intimate that Obama appropriated Mandela as a symbolic father, a perspective that animates Obama as successor to the Mandela legacy narrative.

The bigger question is whether or not the unconventional family dimensions of their lives would serve to ruin their legacies, especially so in the case of Mandela.

As the economic equality issues have risen, commentators have labelled Mandela as a sell-out of the blacks, especially on matters of land ownership.

Similarly, Obama’s legacy is seen as being wiped out by the successor administration of President Donald Trump.

Already signature policies of the Obama administration such as the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), the affordable health care deal and US rapprochement with Iran and Cuba and the Paris climate agreement have been rescinded. Mandela’s good name was somewhat bruised for schisms with African leaders, such as the late Sani Abacha of Nigeria, South Africa’s military intervention in Lesotho during his presidential tenure and differences with Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.

Generally criticism has been levelled at both for putative “betrayal” in not challenging poverty and inequality, at least from the perspective of the constituencies they are seen as having represented: South African blacks/African Americans and Africans on the African continent and other African diasporas.

Both were trained as lawyers, but elected for leadership approaches steeped in making concessions and compromises rather than pursuing equality on the basis of legal parameters.

Some applaud their reconciliatory mien; others hold that they should have prosecuted the social ills that afflicted their racially-divided countries a little more vigorously.

In other words, some hold that both men went too far in embracing the ethos of negotiation and reconciliation while overlooking the downtrodden.

The qualities that underpin their leadership styles are seen as forged by tolerance, inclusivity, democracy in a world that is increasingly turning nativist, exclusionary and populist.

Mandela and Obama may have established strong ideals while in office only to see their ethos eroded once they relinquished instruments of formal power.

Dr Bob Wekesa is a senior lecturer in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies, University of the Witwatersrand. This article was originally published on Independent Online. Read the original article.