The Slatest

Barack Obama Cautions Against “Strongman Politics” in South Africa Speech

Former US President Barack Obama speaks during the 2018 Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture.
Former US President Barack Obama speaks during the 2018 Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture.
MARCO LONGARI/Getty Images

Barack Obama may not be able to dance like Nelson Mandela could. But like the famed South African president, he can pack an auditorium.

In a high-profile speech in Johannesburg, South Africa, honoring the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth, Obama called for the global community to “embrace our common humanity” and warned against “the politics of fear and resentment.”

The speech was part of Obama’s first trip to Africa since leaving the White House, a trip that has also included a visit to Kenya, where his father was born.

Obama didn’t mention Trump by name but took aim at the administration’s policies such as the travel ban, saying that immigration policy should not be based on race, ethnicity, or religion. He also warned against fake news, climate change denial, and anti-intellectualism. He cautioned against the rise of the “strongman.”

“I am not being an alarmist. I’m simply stating the facts,” he told a crowd of about 15,000. “Look around—strongman politics are ascendant suddenly, whereby elections and some pretense of democracy are maintained—the form of it—but those in powers seek to undermine every institution or norm that gives democracy meaning.”

The comment also alludes back to his famous quote from a 2009 trip to Ghana: “Africa doesn’t need strong men. It needs strong institutions.”

The continent has had some victories in this arena, perhaps most notably the ousting of the Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh. But several leaders continue to cling to power, most recently, South Sudan’s Salva Kiir.

Obama has long admired Mandela, whom he met in 2005 and often refers to as Madiba, Mandela’s clan name.

“Madiba’s light shone so brightly, even from that narrow Robbon Island cell, that in the late 70s he could inspire a young college student on the other side of the world to reexamine his own priorities, could make me consider the small role I might play in bending the arc of the world towards justice,” Obama said in his speech, referring to Mandela’s 27 years in prison for attempting to overthrow South Africa’s apartheid regime.

Mandela’s popularity across the continent still exceeds Obama’s, although America’s first black president has inspired an avid following in several African countries, with streets, shops, and even ballpoint pens bearing his name. Obama’s approval rating was 71 percent in South Africa and 73 percent in Kenya in 2015, according to Gallup research.

But in spite of his popularity, he has a complicated legacy in Africa. While he continued the policies of his predecessors, including Bush’s HIV/AIDs relief program and Clinton’s trade preference program, he failed to produce new policies to rival their success, according to critics. He has also been criticized for expanding military operations on the continent, including the use of drones.

Obama’s trip to Africa included a stop in Kenya, where he met with President Uhuru Kenyatta and visited a nonprofit founded by his half-sister, Auma Obama. And his Nelson Mandela speech comes at a tumultuous time in world politics—just one day after a controversial summit between President Trump and President Vladimir Putin.