Obama, Mandela and actions versus words
Date Released: Tue, 2 July 2013 09:59 +0200
Eloquent words can never speak as loud as actions, writes Verashni Pillay after watching Barack Obama speak in SA in Nelson Mandela’s shadow.
Just five years ago the prospect of United States President Barack Obama visiting our shores would have driven most South Africans wild with excitement.
In those heady days of 2008, when Obama was elected as the first black president of the US, there was a contagious magic in the air that swept through the world. We were inspired by the promise of a new kind of US politics, a fresh vision and the hope summarised in the catchy mantra: "Yes we can."
A few short years later Obama’s visit, part of a three-stop Africa tour, did not create much of a blip in the country’s psyche.
The statistics provided by search engine giant Google provides one obvious clue. In the past 30 days, people googling about ailing South African icon Nelson Mandela far outstripped those curious about Obama’s visit.
Mandela's critical health status and the reality of a future without him overshadowed Obama’s visit in the mind of most South Africans. It also proved a dampener on the US embassy in South Africa’s preparation around the visit. They wisely avoided creating too much fanfare around the visit and publicising scheduled events, in case the country received news of Madiba’s passing during the time.
But there was more to our muted reception of Obama than bigger news on the agenda. The business of governing is messy and inspiring talk and catchy slogans can’t compete with the reality of troubling actions.
Obama’s long overdue visit to the continent was too little too late for some, who argued that he did less for the continent than his predecessor – the internationally derided George W Bush, who was nevertheless praised for his progressive policies on Aids funding to the continent.
It’s hard to stomach the phrase "Yes we can” when directives to hope compete for space with reports of extrajudicial killings by unmanned drones in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia; of deep incursions into our privacy; and spying on opponents – and allies – that makes Watergate look tame. Obama may be doing well on many areas, from immigration reform to healthcare. But the expectation – giddy and unrealistic as it was in 2008 – was that he would not be caught dead continuing things such as the Prism programme and targeted drone killings.
In fact, Obama’s administration has proven to be incredibly secretive and controlled and his government's harsh crackdown on whistle blowers acting in the interest of democracy has had a horribly chilling effect on investigative journalism. He told an audience in Senegal during this trip that he would not be wasting jets going after a 29-year-old hacker but that has not stopped his administration with charging Edward Snowden under the deeply troubling Espionage Act. This is a World War 1-era piece of legislation that was used just three times on whistle blowers in the 90-odd years before Obama, but which has been used seven times by his administration in his just five years to crack down on leaks.
So when I sat in a room in Soweto on Saturday as part of a specially selected delegation of young African leaders and watched Obama walk in, I felt a thrill of excitement at seeing the man in the flesh. He looked exactly as he did on camera and carried some of that 2008 magic into the room with him.
I had been chosen thanks to a previous engagement with Michelle Obama during her 2011 visit. The US embassy in South Africa must be commended on its moves to win over young leaders in this country and create a space for conversations about democracy. Michelle Obama’s tour carried much more of that “Yes we can” magic. When she spoke to a packed church in Soweto, she was passionate, focused and alive. Her words carried incredible force and when she picked out various members of our group to stand up seemingly at random and lauded their achievements, it felt spontaneous and genuine.
Her husband, on the other hand, faced us on the back of damaging governance mistakes. He seemed tired after an incredibly packed day. His advisers cued up the same trick with certain people in the audience but strangely had them sitting all together in a row. Obama stumbled over their names and overstated the achievements of some. His speech was written to make it seem spontaneous. “Where are you?” he shouted after each name. But as they stood up one after the other on a specially allocated row, the moment seemed stilted and wooden.
He is no doubt a wonderful speaker but his answers seemed rehearsed and like reiterations of things he had already said during the visit – not that he was helped by a series of uninspiring questions from the audience. And while he did well to speak out strongly about corruption, a malaise in South Africa and African politics, I struggled to take him seriously when he spoke about how a democracy was built on transparency and accountability.
Because words, no matter how eloquent or inspiring, can never speak as loud as actions.
Nelson Mandela is a renowned orator and his speeches are the stuff of legend. He has a way with words that has spawned books, memes, posters and more.
But the more I think about him in these sobering days as he slips from our nation’s grasp, the more I realise it isn’t Mandela’s words that have earned my respect.
It is a single act that no critic can get around: the fact that Mandela walked out of prison after a gruelling 27 years, a time I can’t even begin to fathom, with little bitterness in his heart and a mind set on peace and reconciliation.
It is forgiveness of such a magnitude, it is almost absurd.
It is this and other acts in his life that – as the hackneyed saying goes – speaks volumes. And perhaps it is the simplicity of this act that has stayed with us.
In a stirring op-ed, New York Times writer Bill Keller wrote an insightful comparison of the two men and their leadership styles, and what Obama could learn from Mandela. At one hilarious point he notes that the Nobel committee, “which had awarded its peace prize to Mandela for ending the obscenity of apartheid, bestowed that honour on Obama merely for not being George W Bush”.
And he ends on a more poignant note. He noted that Mandela, above all, had a clear sense of his core principles and never lost sight of his ultimate goal: freedom, equality and the rule of law.
The same could not be said for Obama, notes Keller. And perhaps that’s why I left that room in Soweto on Saturday unsure of what I had just seen: fantastic political theatre with a hard core of truth and moral certitude at the centre, or just so much PR, with no real clarity as to what any of it stood for.
Verashni Pillay is the deputy editor of the Mail & Guardian Online.
Source: Mail & Guardian