Obama warns against China’s model and rise of ‘strongman politics’, in speech hailing Mandela’s legacy
‘We now stand at a crossroads, a moment in time in which two very different visions of humanity’s future compete for the hearts and minds of citizens around the world’
Former US President Barack Obama decried mounting global inequality and the emergence of a political order based on fear and resentment, calling for greater efforts to foster international cooperation as he delivered barbs at China and his successor in the White House.
“A politics of fear, and resentment” is building, Obama said in a speech in Johannesburg on Tuesday, a day before the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth. “It’s on the move at a pace that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago.”
Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison and emerged to become South Africa’s first black leader after white minority rule ended, died in December 2013 at the age of 95. Obama praised the global icon’s legacy, saying he had shown that people were bound together by a common humanity and that a world governed by democratic principles was possible.
Obama warned that advances made since Mandela was in office were being eroded, with far-right parties emerging in the West that advocate protectionism, closed borders and barely hidden racial nationalism. Many developing countries are seeking to emulate China’s model of “authoritarian control combined with mercantilist capitalism as preferable to the messiness of democracy”.
“Who needs free speech as long as the economy is going good?” he said, in the speech lasting almost 90 minutes.
“Strongman politics is ascending suddenly whereby elections and some pretence of democracy are maintained, a form of it, but those in power seem to undermine every institution or norm that gives democracy meaning,” Obama said. “We now stand at a crossroads, a moment in time in which two very different visions of humanity’s future compete for the hearts and minds of citizens around the world.”
While there was no guarantee that progressive values would ultimately triumph, there was no place for despondency, Obama said.
“It’s tempting right now to give into cynicism to believe that recent shifts in global politics are too powerful to push back,” he said. “We have to resist that cynicism.”
The first African-American president of the United States spoke up for equality in all forms, adding: “I would have thought we had figured that out by now.”
Obama praised the diversity of the World Cup champion French team, and he said that those countries engaging in xenophobia “eventually … find themselves consumed by civil war.”
He noted the “utter loss of shame among political leaders when they’re caught in a lie and they just double down and lie some more,” warning that the denial of facts – such as climate change – could be the undoing of democracy.
There were plenty of thinly veiled barbs at his successor, US President Donald Trump, taking aim at his stances on climate change, immigration and other policies.
“You have to believe in facts,” Obama said. “Without facts there’s no basis for cooperation. If I say this is a podium, and you say this is an elephant, it’s going to be hard for us to cooperate.”
“I can’t find common ground if somebody says that climate change just isn’t happening, when almost all the world’s scientists tell us it is,” Obama continued. “I don’t know where to start talking to you about this. If you say it’s an elaborate hoax, where do we start?”
But Obama reminded the crowd that “we’ve been through darker times. We’ve been through lower valleys.”
He closed with a call to action: “I say if people can learn to hate, they can be taught to love.”
The crowd gave him a standing ovation in the chilly South African winter.
“Just by standing on the stage honouring Nelson Mandela, Obama is delivering an eloquent rebuke to Trump,” said John Stremlau, professor of international relations at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg.
He called the timing of Obama’s speech auspicious – one day after Trump’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin – and said the commitments that defined Mandela’s life are “under assault.”
“Yesterday, we had Trump and Putin standing together; now we are seeing the opposing team: Obama and Mandela.”
This was Obama’s first trip to Africa since leaving office in 2017. Earlier this week, he stopped in Kenya, where he visited the rural birthplace of his late father.
Additional reporting by Associated Press