Obama hits out at strongman politics in Mandela lecture

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and former US president Barack Obama at the Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture held at the Wanderers cricket stadium in Johannesburg yesterday.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and former US president Barack Obama at the Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture held at the Wanderers cricket stadium in Johannesburg yesterday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

JOHANNESBURG • Former United States president Barack Obama fired a broadside at strongman politics in a rare public speech yesterday, a day after his successor held a widely scrutinised summit with long-time US rival Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

Calling today's times "strange and uncertain", Mr Obama said: "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."

"It is in part because of the failures of governments and powerful elites... that we now see much of the world threatening to return to an older, more dangerous, more brutal way of doing business," he added.

The former US leader was delivering the Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture at a cricket stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa, to urge young people to fight to defend democracy, human rights and peace, the Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported.

"Strongman politics are ascendant suddenly. Whereby elections and some pretence of democracy are maintained the form of it," Mr Obama said, without naming anyone. "But those in power seek to undermine every institution or norm that gives democracy meaning."

Mr Mandela, who died in 2013, remains a global icon for his long struggle against white-minority apartheid rule and for his message of peace and reconciliation after being freed following 27 years in prison.

Mr Obama's speech came on the eve of "Mandela Day" - Mr Mandela's birthday, which is marked around the world every year on July 18.

Mr Obama met Mr Mandela only briefly in 2005 but gave a eulogy at his funeral, saying Mr Mandela "makes me want to be a better man" and hailing him as "the last great liberator of the 20th century".

"I believe in a vision... built on the premise that all people are created equal and they're endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights."

Mr Obama has made relatively few public appearances since leaving the White House last year, but he has often credited Mr Mandela with being one of the great inspirations in his life.

US President Donald Trump and Mr Putin held a historic summit on Monday vowing their determination to forge a reset of troubled relations between the world's greatest nuclear powers.

Mr Trump, bent on forging a personal bond with the Kremlin chief despite allegations of Russian meddling in US politics, went into the summit blaming the "stupidity" of his predecessors for plunging ties to their present low.

In a morning tweet yesterday, Mr Trump portrayed his Helsinki summit with Mr Putin as a great success, saying that it had gone "even better" than a meeting with Nato allies the week before.

He also blamed the media for negative coverage of his joint news conference with the Russian leader, AFP reported.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 18, 2018, with the headline 'Obama hits out at strongman politics in Mandela lecture'. Print Edition | Subscribe