Former US President Barack Obama reflected on the “strange and uncertain times” of the world in a speech to honor Nelson Mandela on Tuesday, a day after his successor, Donald Trump, upbraided the US in a news conference with Vladimir Putin.
In a lecture at the cavernous Wanderers Cricket Stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa, Obama told some 15,000 people that the chaos of the world gave him the opportunity to seek perspective.
“But in the strange and uncertain times that we are in — and they are strange, and they are uncertain, with each day’s news cycles bringing more head spinning and disturbing headlines — I thought maybe it would be useful to step back for a moment and try to get some perspective, so I hope you’ll indulge me,” he said, as he launched into his speech.
Obama has made an art of criticizing the current President’s values without explicitly naming Trump. His speech follows a humiliating news conference in Helsinki, Finland, on Monday, in which Trump sided with Putin over his own country’s intelligence agencies on whether Russia interfered in the 2016 US election.
Obama makes the 16th annual Nelson Mandela Lecture ahead of Mandela Day on Wednesday, in one of his highest-profile speeches and his first return to Africa since he left office in 2017.
His lecture, titled “Renewing the Mandela legacy and promoting active citizenship in a changing world,” tracks the transformation of the world, particularly in terms of race relations and human rights, over the past 100 years. “It is a plain fact that racial discrimination still exists in both the United States and South Africa,” he said.
He added that the world must recognize that governments and powerful elites were partly to blame for not delivering on the promises of the new world order. That is why, Obama said, some of the world is “threatening to return to an older and more dangerous and more brutal way of doing business.”
Obama’s speech followed remarks by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, and Mandela’s widow, Graça Machel, formerly a freedom fighter and minister in Mozambique’s government.
Machel drew several parallels between Mandela and Obama, portraying them both as modest men as “symbols of victory over adversity.”
“As the first African-American president … Barack Obama stands on the shoulders of giants. He too was influenced by generations of greats who came before him” she said.
“From the humblest of beginnings, they are representatives of the masses and reached to the pinnacle of power and influence. But in doing so they were able to elevate the rights and ambitions of the disenfranchised and the weak. Of young and old, of both men and women, of black and white.”
Mandela died in 2013 at the age of 95. He helped South Africa break the practice of racial segregation and do away with white minority rule.
Imprisoned for nearly three decades for his fight against state-sanctioned racial segregation, he was freed in 1990 and quickly set about working to unite the nation through forgiveness and reconciliation, becoming South Africa’s first black president. Obama, who became the US’ first black president in 2009, has referred to Mandela as a mentor.