A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Arguing that “we have no choice but to move forward” and that “those of us who believe in democracy and civil rights and a common humanity have a better story to tell,” President Obama delivered an impassioned 2018 Nelson Mandela Lecture to a massive crowd in Johannesburg to mark what would have been the anti-apartheid icon’s 100th birthday. Obama’s most high-profile speech since leaving office came amidst celebrations across South Africa to honor the centennial of Mandela – lawyer, activist, husband, father and moral giant who helped lead the fight against apartheid from the prison cell on Robben Island where he spent 27 brutal years.
Events honoring Mandela range from a Mandela Trek to visit what are now the national landmarks of his long life to the publication of a book of often heartbreaking prison letters to his wife and children: “I do not know, my darlings, when I will return.” Mandela’s iron will and deep humanity sustained him through decades of struggle, including the deaths of two sons; at the funeral of one, he quoted the 19th-century poem Invictus, which begins, “Out of the night that covers me/ Black as the Pit from pole to pole/ I thank whatever gods may be/ For my unconquerable soul.”
With grace, acumen and eloquence, Obama often smilingly referenced “Madiba,” the name South Africans bestowed on Mandela, as he paid tribute to a man who “came to embody the universal aspirations of dispossessed people all around the world.” Acknowledging “the strange and uncertain times,” he offered a lengthy historical retrospective, from colonialism to globalism, in search of a roadmap forward. He went from Madiba’s village childhood, when most of Africa was under European rule, “the inferiority of the black race (was) a given,” and “there was no reason to believe that a young black boy at this time, in this place, could in any way alter history”; through Mandela’s triumphant release, when “it seemed as if the forces of progress were on the march, inexorable. Each step he took, you felt (the) old structures of violence and repression and ancient hatreds crumbling before our eyes”; to today’s rise of “a politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment.”
He was alternately witty, angry, disbelieving – “You can’t just make stuff up!” – citing the current crimes, lies, cruelty, racism. “Strongman politics are ascendant,” he said, “whereby elections and some pretense of democracy are maintained – the form of it – but those in power seek to undermine every institution or norm that gives democracy meaning.” He was consistent in calling on young people to “keep believing, keep marching, keep building, keep raising your voice. Mandela said, ‘Young people are capable, when aroused, of bringing down the towers of oppression and raising the banners of freedom.’ Now is a good time to be aroused.” For all his flaws, it must be said, he was presidential, a reminder of what can change. He often used the words “humanity,” “solidarity,” “kindness.” He never once said the word “Trump.”
“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” – Nelson Mandela
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Text by Abby Zimet writing for Common Dreams.
The newly freed Nelson Mandela in 1990.