As the Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture (NMAL) kicks off, we reflect upon the lessons that Madiba himself tried to teach the nation. As one of the most honourable and forgiving men that ever graced South Africa, a simple lecture seems minuscule in comparison to what he has done for the country but the Nelson Mandela foundation aims to continue his legacy and help the country grow.
The NMAL is one of the flagship programmes that honour its founder, Nelson Mandela. Every year since 2003, global leaders have used the lecture to raise subjective issues affecting SA, Africa and the rest of the world.
This year the topic of focus was “Renewing the Mandela Legacy and Promoting Active Citizenship in a Changing World". Former US president, Barack Obama, and many other highly respected speakers addressed the congregation at the Bidvest Wanderers cricket stadium.
The Mandela Foundation's executive explained why Obama was the main speaker saying, "We thought to ourselves: 'Who can best represent the legacy of Madiba? Who took the baton when he became president of his own country? Who would be able to deal with issues of democracy in a world ripped apart by corruption?' ... We needed an African person."
Both men were the first black president's of their countries and Obama derived his morals and inspiration to lead from Mandela himself.
Among the international dignitaries that attended the NMAL included former UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, former Botswana President, Ian Khama, and former Liberian President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
South Africa reflects on the values on which the country's democracy was built and remembers the great man that was Madiba who would have turned 100-years-old on the 18th of July.
Obama started off by sharing some of Madiba's history, reminiscing about what Madiba had told him of his childhood before moving toward the context in which Madiba, and many other South African's, grew up in.
He described how European colonialism restricted the African population, going even further to say the Europeans "viewed this continent and its people primarily as spoils in a contest for territory, abundant natural resources and cheap labour, and the inferiority of the black race – an indifference towards black culture and interests and aspirations – was a given. Such a view of the world; that certain races, certain nations, certain groups were inherently superior, and that violence and coercion is the primary basis for governance, that the strong necessarily exploit the weak, that wealth is determined primarily by conquest".
Obama went back in history to where the world was marginalised according to race and sex. Women had few rights and were viewed as less important and the black population were seen as the bottom of society. He then commented on the transformation the world has made today saying, "we have begun to embrace a new vision for humanity, a new idea, one based not only on the principle of national self-determination but also on the principles of democracy, the rule of law, civil rights and the inherent dignity of every single individual".
Obama linked Madiba to the determination to move towards democracy, equal rights and freedom for all, leading the struggle to end apartheid. During this fight, he became a symbol of hope for all those who were marginalised and for moral transformation in the conduct of human affairs.
Obama reminisced regarding the feelings of joy and hope as both apartheid was finally broken down and the fall of the Berlin wall – which happened mere months prior to Madiba's release from Robben Island. Mandela led the country with his progressive, democratic vision that shifted the world's views and put the power into the hands of the people.
He shifted from the light conversation and remembrance of Mandela's reign to talking about the way that the world, specifically South Africa, has moved. Particularly how it's moved away from the promise of creating a free land for all towards reverting to racial discrimination in not only South Africa but the United States too.
He admitted that certain elements have remained the same despite the rapid rate of change we see in the world. "Economic opportunity – for all the magnificence of the global economy, all the shining skyscrapers that have transformed the landscape around the world, entire neighbourhoods, entire cities, entire regions, entire nations – have been bypassed."
Obama pointed out the negative changes that globalisation has brought about, the large wealth disparities and worldwide corruption in which a small percentage of the rich and powerful control the wealth and livelihoods of the world. The decisions of the dominant around the globe don't take into consideration the impact they have and the subsequent consequences for the working class.
The ex-US president moved onto the response to all of this inequality and corruption saying, "Let me tell you what I believe. I believe in Nelson Mandela's vision. I believe in a vision shared by Gandhi and King and Abraham Lincoln. I believe in a vision of equality and justice and freedom and multi-racial democracy built on the premise that all people are created equal, and they're endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights. And, I believe that a world governed by such principles is possible and that it can achieve more peace and more cooperation in pursuit of a common good. That's what I believe. And I believe we have no choice but to move forward; that those of us who believe in democracy and civil rights and a common humanity have a better story to tell. And I believe this not just based on sentiment, I believe it based on hard evidence."
Obama explained that the necessary changes required will not come easily, rather determination and strong leadership that ensures all children get an education and are able to have food on their tables is the solution. He talked about wealth distribution, saying that laws need to "maintain some form of progressive taxation so that rich people are still rich but they're giving a little bit back, to make sure that everybody else has something to pay for universal health care and retirement security, and invests in infrastructure and scientific research that builds platforms for innovation."
Obama acknowledged the challenges that the president of South Africa will face, mentioning that employment was one of the biggest issues in the face of a world that is becoming reliant on technology to replace jobs. He then reverted back to the lessons that Mandela tried to teach the world, that it wasn't just about the voting system but about the moral and civic culture it has built.
He also referred to the fact that the idea behind democracy is that the government exists to serve the country and its people. He also shifted responsibility onto the citizens of these countries to help the nation by building up the youth, quoting Mandela; "Young people are capable, when aroused, of bringing down the towers of oppression and raising the banners of freedom." He urged the youth to take lead and surge forward towards making changes and leading the country into greatness.
Obama ended off by urging all of us to continue the march towards change and freedom, finally ending with a quote by Mandela: "No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart."
Happy birthday, Madiba.