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 regard 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 month 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. Obama’s eulogy at the memorial service of Mandela on December 10, 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 were 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 on 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 mirror Obama’s own life as the union between his American mother and Kenyan father broke down early in his childhood.
Some have gone so far as to intimate that Obama appropriated Mandela as a symbolic father, a perspective that animates the 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 economic equality issues have risen, commentators have labelled Mandela as sell-out of black people, especially on matters of land ownership among other economic imperatives. Similarly, Obama’s legacy is seen as being wiped out by the successor administration in the US. Already, signature policies of the Obama administration such as the Trans Pacific Partnership, 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 by 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 and 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 media and geopolitics scholar at Wits University, [email protected]
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.