Former US president Barack Obama delivers his speech at the 16th Annual Nelson Mandela Lecture in Johannesburg last week. After the likes of Donald Trump and Jacob Zuma, his message was like a breath of fresh air, says the writer Picture: AP/African News Agency (ANA)
COMMENT - Last week, Barack Obama’s Mandela lecture was vantage Obama - clear, visionary and full of moral clarity.

After the likes of Jacob Zuma and Donald Trump, Obama’s speech was a sometimes thrilling breath of fresh air. Obama was 100% correct to rail against fake news - often driven by social media, chauvinism and corruption. He was 100% to hold out a clear vision of society based on democracy and equality.

Cyril Ramaphosa seemed to bask in Obama’s radiance and we, as a nation, suddenly remembered what it felt like to view the future with optimism. We were, even if momentarily, taken back to the magic of the 1994 moment when Nelson Mandela saved us from war and offered a thrilling vision of a new South Africa.

The fashion of disparaging Mandela among the “woke” youth always takes an entirely ahistorical form. The facts are that after the collapse of the Soviet Union there was no real possibility, in terms of global geopolitics, for anything other than liberal democracy. It is also a fact that MK never met, let alone defeated, the SADF on the field of battle and so a negotiated settlement was the only way to avoid the sort of perpetual stalemate that we see in Palestine.

The failures of the government in terms of land reform, education and health cannot be blamed on Mandela. They must, very firmly, be blamed on the collapse into extreme corruption, paranoia and the deliberate weaponisation of fake news during the Zuma years. This doesn’t mean that Mandela should be beyond critique, but it does mean that critique needs to be rooted in reality. We should neither sanctify nor demonise Mandela, or any other world historical figure.

However, it is understandable that many born-frees are frustrated at the way in which Mandela was used against them in white spaces, like schools. Mandela’s commitment to reconciliation was systemically misused by white power to silence black anger. But in these cases the correct position should be anger at the misuse of Mandela, and not anger at Mandela himself.

But there were some disconcerting aspects of Obama’s talk. One was that Mandela was always a revolutionary nationalist. When he came out of prison he rushed to visit figures like Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat. He refused to allow the America state, or civil society, to tell him that Castro and Arafat were not his comrades. Despite Obama’s wonderful rhetoric, the reality is that in office he authorised large numbers of lethal drone strikes, deported vast numbers of migrants and jailed huge numbers of African-American men.

Obama’s rhetoric was also enlightened but his actions were those of a typical leader of the American empire. There is a real contradiction here with Mandela’s politics. It is also disturbing to have a billionaire with highly questionable dealings in the DRC sitting on the stage, and corporate sponsors for the event. The relationship with Global Citizen, with its direct links to the World Bank, a key instrument of contemporary imperialism, is even more disturbing. In a way it seems as if Mandela’s memory is being captured and depoliticised by corporate power at home; and imperial powers abroad.

But in these days when South Africans are hoping for a “new dawn” we also need to ask what went wrong with the Obama presidency. We need to ask why a man with such lofty ideals failed in office. This is not just a matter of Obama continuing with drone strikes, mass deportations and mass incarceration. It is also the fact that after 8 years in office Obama was not able to build popular support for his values.

A key reason for Obama’s failure in office was that his response to the financial crisis was to bail out the bankers, and not ordinary Americans.

Obama always spoke the language of equality but in practice he always supported big capital against the American people. If we assume the best about Obama’s character then the best explanation for this failures in office is that he was not backed by a vibrant grassroots movement. Without a strong popular movement to back him against established interests - be they in corporate America or in the military - he was not able to push back effectively.

As a young man Obama was a follower of Saul Alinsky, the famed theorist of building popular movements. But as he became a rising star in the Democratic Party he seemed to forget that the power to really change things doesn’t sit in the presidency. That power sits in popular movements. In the late 1960s the civil rights movement won far more for African-Americans via action on the streets than having a black President in the White House won for African-Americans.

There is an important lesson here for us. The opinion polls show that South Africans are restoring their faith in the ANC under Ramaphosa. The electoral collapse in the party’s fortunes that seemed imminent under Zuma has been averted. But Ramaphosa is a billionaire businessman, with a billionaire brother-in-law, and not the leader of a popular movement. Not unlike Obama, he does not have the backing of a powerful social movement behind him.

If Ramaphosa’s presidency is going to avoid the fate of Obama’s presidency he will need to return to his days as a charismatic trade unionist and build a popular movement for change. Without that he will be an urbane, articulate president who we all like but who just can’t seem to actually get real change under way.

Obama’s soaring rhetoric was inspirational. We need to stand up for democracy, and reason, and honesty against the likes of Trump, Zuma and Malema. But if we are to take a mature view of our situation, and the road ahead, we need to take Obama’s failures in office just as seriously as his inspirational speech.

NOTE: Buccus is senior research associate at ASRI, research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN and academic director of a university study abroad programme on political transformation. Buccus promotes #Reading Revolution via [email protected] at Antique Café in Morningside