Three lessons Madiba taught us, according to Obama

Nelson Mandela (Trevor Samson/AFP)

Nelson Mandela (Trevor Samson/AFP)

The late Nelson Mandela has given us three key lessons, former United States president Barack Obama said. The lessons are on economic equality, the value of each individual and the importance of democracy.

“Madiba shows that those who believe in democracy and economic equality will have to fight harder,” Obama said.

On Tuesday afternoon Obama walked to the podium to cheers of “Yes we can” from the 15000-strong crowd to deliver the 16th annual Nelson Mandela lecture, kicking off celebrations marking Mandela’s centennial birthday.

READ MORE: Obama to deliver Nelson Mandela lecture

“I do not believe In economic determinism. Human beings do not live on bread alone. When economic power is concentrated on the few, political power is sure to follow, and this eats away at democracy,” Obama said.

Obama called for progressive economic taxation, arguing that there was “only so much [the wealthy] can eat”. He confessed that he falls into the wealthy category. 

However, he explained, it “shows a poverty in ambition to just want to take more and more”, adding that there should be an emphasis on “how much you can give”.

“You should want to help people and not just yourself,” Obama said.

Obama’s second point had him arguing for people to “fight those who seek to elevate themselves by pulling someone else down”.

He called for a renewal in the fight for the right to disagree with political figures, the equality of women and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community.

Obama emphasised that these notions of equality and democracy are not western ideals, but rather global ideas.

On the importance of democracy, Obama said: “Madiba could have governed for the rest of his life — who would have opposed him? Instead he guided South Africa and showed that no individual poses a monopoly on wisdom.”

Democracy is an independent judiciary, the right to protest and the fact that every citizen is accountable to the law. It was not, Obama said, 100% majority rule, or a lack of press freedom. However, he feared that around the world, including the African continent, the tenants of democracy are being abused, urging people to fight for democracy on a grassroots level.

“To make democracy work, we need to teach ourselves and our children to engage with people who have different views,” Obama said.

He examined the world over the last hundred years, starting at Mandela’s birth in Qunu in the Eastern Cape during the end of one of the world’s greatest wars.

“A hundred years ago, there was no reason to believe that a young black boy at this time and this place would be able to alter history,” Obama said.

Nor did this young boy realise that later on in his life when he was in prison, he would encourage a young Obama to re-examine his priorities to begin his fight to “strong arm the world to justice”.

In his speech Obama tracked the enormous social and democratic progress the world has made in the 100 years between Mandela’s 1918 birth and 2018.

“All across the world,” Obama said, in the 20th century “democracy challenged dictatorships”.

But, Obama said “The more things that change, the more things stay the same.”

He explained that with technological innovation and globalisation, there has been a disruption of agriculture and manufacturing industries in the world.

To add to the problem: “[Globalisation] has made it easier for capitalists to avoid tax laws. The result of all these trends has been an explosion in economic inequality.”

Obama emphasised that globalisation was not going to go away, but — in a thinly veiled dig at current United States President Donald Trump — the only manner in which to address issues such as climate change and migration was through more international cooperation than less.

“History shows the power of fear, and the lasting hold of greed. History shows how easily people can be convinced to turn on people,” said Obama urging people to avoid entrenching social systems of old.

Obama has often credited Mandela for being one of the inspirations in his life.

WATCH: 16th annual Mandela lecture

Prior to delivering his emotive hour-and-a-half speech at Bidvest Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg, Obama made few public appearances since he left the White House in 2017. Ahead of his address, Obama was in Kenya where he opened a youth centre which will be run by his half-sister.

In honour of Mandela and the sacrifices he made, President Cyril Ramaphosa has promised to donate half of his salary to charity.

Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years during, and he was freed in 1990. After his release, Mandela went on to lead the ANC to victory in the first democratic elections in 1994.

Gemma Ritchie

Gemma Ritchie

Gemma Ritchie works in the Mail & Guardian's online department. She majored in English Literature at a small liberal arts college in the USA.  Read more from Gemma Ritchie

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