Opinion

Obama's beautiful oration highlighted the tragedies of our post-Mandela, post-truth society

22 July 2018 - 00:00

If you have been alive long enough, you tend to notice how every generation assumes that it is the most relevant, defining epoch. Each new generation believes it has the ability to change the course of history and correct the mistakes of those who went before.
In reality, humankind has begotten a succession of horrors, progressively devastated the planet and produced world leaders who obviate such dreams. Occasionally, though, one leader would come along and inspire hope and leave a positive imprint on history.
Until a few years ago, Nelson Mandela was universally considered to be such a figure. But some people in our country - and it is only in South Africa - now view him as a "sellout". They also believe that those of us who cherish his memory and celebrate his legacy are "problematic", in denial of current realities and indulging in misplaced idolatry.
I saw a message on my Twitter timeline this week that said the reason "the public does not like Mandela" was because the ANC had named so many things after him. The message was being repeatedly affirmed, not contested.
I longed to ask which "public" this was and what basis was used to determine that Mandela was not liked.
It is difficult to argue with people who refuse to consider the complexity of South Africa's transition to democracy and believe that the liberation movement surrendered to the will of apartheid rulers in order to secure a quick fix.The disparities in society, unacceptable failure of the democratic government to break the cycle of poverty, and botching of processes to ensure equitable redistribution of resources mean that Mandela and his generation have to take responsibility for the state of the country now - even though they could not have foreseen the future.
And to give further traction to the new-age antipathy to Mandela, it has also become necessary to pit him against Winnie Madikizela-Mandela as her rebellious spirit, but not their deep love for each other, is convenient to exploit.
This is why so much of what passes as popular views goes unchallenged - it is simply not worth the trouble to get into a dogfight over half-baked opinions, distortion of facts and blatant falsehoods.
The effect of this is the diminishing value of objective reality.
So when Barack Obama nonchalantly referred to the necessity of objective truth during the Nelson Mandela lecture this week, it was interesting to observe the cheering approval at Wanderers stadium and reportage of his quotes across the world.
"You have to believe in facts," Obama said.
"People just make stuff up. We see it in state-sponsored propaganda. We see it in internet-driven fabrications. We see it in the blurring of lines between news and entertainment. We see the utter loss of shame among political leaders, where they're caught in a lie and they just double down and they lie some more."
It seems affirmation of the truth in what Obama called "strange and uncertain times" has become an act of courage.
Obama's speech was not simply a beautiful oration about Mandela on his 100th birthday, it was an appraisal of the human condition at a time when right-wing nationalism and reactionary populism have made hatred of the "other" trendy.
This is, in effect, the opposite of "Mandela-ism" - prescribing who has the right to exist, who should have a place in society to live, work and learn, who ought to have access to resources and who has the right to free expression.Again, Obama referred to what should be uncontested and within the realm of basic human decency.
"More than a quarter century after Madiba walked out of prison, I still have to stand here at a lecture and devote some time to saying that black people and white people and Asian people and Latin-American people and women and men and gays and straights, that we are all human, that our differences are superficial, and that we should treat each other with care and respect.
"I would have thought we would have figured that out by now. I thought that basic notion was well established.
"But it turns out, as we're seeing in this recent drift into reactionary politics, that the struggle for basic justice is never truly finished. So we've got to constantly be on the lookout and fight for people who seek to elevate themselves by putting somebody else down," Obama said.
Many people around the world were inspired by the lecture. It left me doleful.
It made me see that my comfort zone was among 15000 people who received special invitations to watch Obama deliver a powerful oration on the relevance of Madiba's life counterposed against a disturbing state of humanity.
It made me realise that anti-intellectualism and growing intolerance of independent and critical thinking will create further divisions and isolation in society.
Writing in the New Yorker, Jelani Cobb noted: "Obama's performance highlighted how comforting it is to listen to a leader whose ideas form a coherent world view, even if you don't always agree with it."
It is the same reason I miss Madiba more than ever...

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