However, the former US president called on South Africans and the rest of the globe to invoke the spirit of South Africa’s founding father Nelson Mandela to “push for a better world in the face of injustice and exploitation”.
Obama was delivering the keynote address on Tuesday at the 16 th annual lecture in honour of Mandela, fondly known as Tata and Madiba, marking what would have been the former statesman’s 100 th birthday. Mandela died in 2013 after a long illness.
Ordinary South Africans hung onto his every word, along with several dignitaries from the country and across the globe, including numerous heads of state and South African-born Hollywood actress Charlize Theron, who had braved the Johannesburg cold to join former first lady Graça Machel, President Cyril Ramaphosa and the Nelson Mandela Foundation.
There were around 16 thousand people at Wanderers Stadium for the event.
‘Strange and uncertain times’
Obama said that much progress had been made over the years but that the international world order had fallen short on its promises and it had become evident that more needed to be done.
“It is because of the failure of the world order that we see the whole world trying to go back to the old more brutal way of doing business… The previous structures of injustice and exploitation never really went away,” he said.
Without mentioning his successor Donald Trump or referring to the incumbent’s recent media briefing with controversial Russian President Vladimir Putin – which has been labelled by some as “shocking” – said these were “strange and uncertain times”.
“Basic truths do not change,” Obama said.
These included how the elite carried themselves, continued racial dominance and the politics of fear among numerous issues.
“That kind of politics is now on the move… at a pace which seemed unimaginable just a few years ago,” said Obama.
“I am not alarmist, [I am] just stating facts,” the former American leader added.
Obama’s lecture weaved between his thoughts on Madiba and global events.
‘Two different narratives’
He spoke about the 9/11 terror attack in the US, America’s interference in the Middle East and the growing influence of countries such as China and Russia, as well as the influence of big business and the wealthy elite, describing these as “strongman politics”.
“Plain fact is that racial discrimination still exists in both the United States and in South Africa,” he said.
He added that the world was at crossroads as it marked Madiba’s 100 th birthday.
“A moment in time at which two very different visions of humanity’s future compete, for the hearts and the minds of citizens around the world. Two different stories, two different narratives about who we are and who we should be… how should we respond?”
He acknowledged that it would be easier to be cynical and say the new political force was too powerful to resist, but urged people to rather look to Madiba’s vision and example of working “collectively” with others to make an impact.
“Keep believing, keep marching and raise your voice,” he said to young attendees.
“Now is the time to be fired up,” he continued.