What Obama’s book says about Zuma, Mandela, Tutu and the ANC

18 November 2020 - 07:45
By Kyle Zeeman
Former US president Barack Obama wrote about South Africa several times in his memoirs.
Image: Masi Losi Former US president Barack Obama wrote about South Africa several times in his memoirs.

Former US president Barack Obama has lifted the lid on his thoughts about the state of SA during his presidency and several SA leaders, including Jacob Zuma, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.

Obama released the first volume in a memoir series about his time as president of America, from 2009 to 2017, on Tuesday. The book, A Promised Land, has already charted in the top 10 of Amazon's most sold books for the week.

In the book, Obama reflects on several major world leaders, with Zuma and the ANC mentioned.

He also touches on his trip to SA before becoming president, when he visited Robben Island and later met an energetic Tutu. 

Here are snippets of what he said:


"South Africa at the time [2009] was in a transition, with interim president Kgalema Motlanthe soon to be replaced by Jacob Zuma, the leader of Nelson Mandela’s party, the African National Congress, which controlled the country’s parliament."

"In subsequent meetings, Zuma struck me as amiable enough. He spoke eloquently of the need for fair trade, human development, infrastructure and more equitable distributions of wealth and opportunity on the African continent."

Obama later spoke about crashing a Brics meeting on climate change where Zuma and Brazil's former president Lula da Silva "looked sheepishly down at the papers in front of them" while he spoke.

ANC leadership

"By all accounts, though, much of the goodwill built up through Mandela’s heroic struggle was being squandered by corruption and incompetence under ANC leadership, leaving large swathes of the country’s black population still mired in poverty and despair."


"Along with [Abraham] Lincoln, [Martin Luther] King and [Mahatma] Gandhi, Mandela had profoundly influenced my thinking"

He said Mandela had always been a "role model" to him.

Visiting Robben Island

"In South Africa, I took the boat ride out to Robben Island and stood in the tiny cell where Nelson Mandela had passed most of his 27 years in prison, keeping his faith that change would come. ”

Meeting Tutu

"I met with members of the South African Supreme Court, spoke with doctors at an HIV/Aids clinic, and spent time with Bishop Desmond Tutu, whose joyful spirit I had gotten to know during his visits to Washington. 'So is it true, Barack,” he said with an impish smile, 'that you are going to be our first African president of the United States? Ah, that would make us all verrry proud'."