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Exile and the Prophetic: Obama’s reverence for Mandela has failed on every count

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This post is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

It isn’t every day that a visit by the President of the United States to an African country is upstaged, especially America’s first African American President. In South Africa this is exactly what’s happening and for good reason.

The main reason is that the founding father of the new South Africa, Nelson Mandela, is in his last days. There’s more.

As Mandela’s life and Barack Obama’s political life comes to closure comparisons are inevitable. Obama cut his political teeth on Mandela and South Africa’s anti-Apartheid struggle. He reveres Mandela as a driving force in his life.

Reverence is one thing. Emulation is another. The sincerest way of revering another is to embody their example in your own life.

Reverence for another is acting in ways that befit the one you revere. If emulation becomes rhetorical imitation then reverence becomes trivial. Heroes become kitsch.

Obama’s reverence for Mandela has failed on every count. On the American domestic scene, Obama has accomplishments to point to but his approach has been weak, unfocused and so compromised that his legacy will be seen as the lesser of (John McCain and Mitt Romney) evils. In foreign policy, Obama has been more talk than show. Especially in military and security matters, he has carried on the policies of his (George Bush) predecessor.

Being ranked above those three is better than being ranked below them. If ‘below them’ is possible.

On apartheid, Obama’s challenge has been Israel and Palestine. Here Obama has failed miserably. He hasn’t even shown a false bravado.

In the darkest days of apartheid, Nelson Mandela never wavered. He didn’t pander or engage in couples therapy as John Kerry is doing under Obama’s direction. Nor would Mandela have spoken in Israel and Palestine the way Obama did in his last travels there.

Obama was on his knees in Israel. John Kerry’s shuttle diplomacy wants Palestinians to do the same.

Is Obama’s failure to reach Mandela’s eminence simply a difference in context and generation? No doubt this plays a part. But the deeper issue lay elsewhere. Mandela knew himself, had a purpose and struggled for it. When he suffered, he had a deep reservoir of commitment from which to draw. This combination made Mandela great. This is exactly what Obama lacks.

Will Obama find himself in his post-Presidential life when the trappings of power fall away and his African American reality – and its limitations – comes to the fore once again? Perhaps.

The sad reality is that Mandela’s last days are being played out against the backdrop of a visit by a President who, failing others, more than anything failed himself.

Marc H. Ellis
About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is Professor of History and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of the Global Prophetic. His latest book is Finding Our Voice: Embodying the Prophetic and Other Misadventures.

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11 Responses

  1. atime forpeace
    atime forpeace on June 29, 2013, 11:39 am

    Thanks Mark, that was an excellent expose of the failures of another politician who’s promises and claims must be placed in the crucible of facts to be able to judge them clearly.

  2. dbroncos
    dbroncos on June 29, 2013, 12:34 pm

    Well said Mr. Ellis.

  3. Taxi
    Taxi on June 29, 2013, 2:38 pm

    The grand difference between Mandela and Obama is that one is a global hero and the other is a lobby poodle.

    I just wonder what went through Obama’s brain when 100 black South Africans greeted his visit to their country with protest? Was he shocked? Did he have a private meltdown? Did he bang his fist into his hotel suite mirror from self-disgust and shame?

    I doubt it. His duties to the elite, both national and international, have been fulfilled – so what does he care?

    And btw, when he first took office, he looked so young and fresh and handsome. Now after so much practiced hypocrisy and he’s looking worse for wear – uglified and yellowing, to be more precise. This morphing into unattractiveness happened to all other presidents before him during their second term especially. I find this physical metamorphosis of politicians fascinating. The price of corrupt power and infamy? Yes, this is what happens to you when you sell your soul to the devil.

  4. Citizen
    Citizen on June 29, 2013, 3:47 pm

    Considering how weak Obama has been in the face of the PTB in America (Wall St, Military-Industrial-Security Complex, Aipac et all), he’s just a joke compared to Mandela. In view of Obama’s actions so far (not his rhetoric & teleprompting), can you imagine Obama enduring even a week of what Mandela endured in prison? This moral and ethical weakling is the best America has to offer as a Messiah? I wanna puke, and I fear from America. Snowden, much younger, and (OMG!) a white male, is so much better for all Americans. Obama was an Ivy League-spewed Constitutional Law legal professr at U of Chicago, and Snowden is just a lower middle class white guy like Manning–I don’t think either even has a community college degree. Isn’t there a message here?

  5. Darcha
    Darcha on June 29, 2013, 5:56 pm

    Thank you, professor. I was trying to find the words to my disgust as I watched the clip on the BBC this evening, and you wrote ’em! If only I had the money and the cojones to go flying off to Costa Rica! Then I could finally hear straight from the source how a mere human being erects a wonder of rhetorical architecture the likes of the two paras that follow the kicker of Obama’s reverence! The lofty Latinates of ’emulation’ and ‘reverence’ crashing against the Anglo-Saxon crags of ‘thing’, ‘another’, ‘life’! But most of all it is that this marvel of rhetoric in the best sense of the word should be smiling bashfully from behind the understood middle term of the second para’s syllogism: our commonly held misconception that rhetoric is mere decoration. That’s the freaking mark of Zorro!

  6. frankier
    frankier on June 29, 2013, 8:57 pm

    How is it that most (all?) US presidents cave in and eventually become strong supporters of Israel, often to the detriment of the US?

    What does Israel have on the US (the world?) that (apparently) highly principled people eventually comply with whatever request Israel puts forward?

    I cannot find another explanation but thinking that there is some terrible secret that Israel uses to threaten the US (the world?)…. Or maybe Israel threatens to unleash a nuclear war in the Middle East that would block the flow of oil?

    In spite of sounding paranoid and seeing conspiracies, I cannot find any other rational explanation that empowers Israel so much. Or is it possible that it is just the money that Israel is able to move in and out of politicians?

    • Citizen
      Citizen on June 30, 2013, 5:23 am

      @ frankier

      I think you got it.
      It’s mostly the money orchestrated by AIPAC under the US political campaign finance system, plus the complicity of the US main media, a hasbara bugle sounding one note in the only superpower state. The rest is the (nuclear) Samson Option. And yes, that sure would negatively impact the flow of oil.

      • frankier
        frankier on June 30, 2013, 12:49 pm

        @Citizen… It cannot be just the money… if it is, then we are locked in an endless cycle that would be broken only if all private money (individual and corporate) is eliminated from politics. But I don’t see that happening any time soon.

    • MRW
      MRW on June 30, 2013, 11:18 am

      “What does Israel have on the US (the world?) that (apparently) highly principled people eventually comply with whatever request Israel puts forward?”

      Practically? Blackmail via the phone system since 1994.

  7. David Doppler
    David Doppler on June 29, 2013, 11:36 pm

    Nelson Mandela, during his trial in 1964: “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for. But, my lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

    Barack Obama, to students in Israel in March 2013: “Speaking as a politician, I can promise you this: political leaders will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do. You must create the change that you want to see.”

  8. Keith
    Keith on June 30, 2013, 2:11 pm

    “In the darkest days of apartheid, Nelson Mandela never wavered.”

    Perhaps not in the darkest days, but surely thereafter. Nowadays, South Africa is not all that different than it was under apartheid. Now Blacks implement the neoliberal aganda under neo-apartheid. Let us not overly sanitize individuals in a search for heroes. Both Obama and Mandela are/were constrained by institutional factors. In the case of Obama, however, he seems to relish the role of Wall Street’s lawyer. At this point in time, it is difficult to imagine a strategy which would enable the 99% to successfully resist the neoliberal juggernaut.

    “In South African Patrick Bond’s discussion of Washington’s economic terrorism, Bond brings up the inability of Nelson Mandela to refuse the IMF structural adjustment forced on his nation after the end of apartheid. This “adjustment” included insisting that the new government pay off the prior government’s debts. Bond and the editors rightly point out that South Africa was a victim of US economic terrorism. One need look no further than Cyprus to see the latest victim of this form of terrorism. It can be argued that the terrorist regime in the case of Cyprus (and Greece, Spain and Portugal) was the European Union and Germany, but in doing so, one would have to ignore the role played by giant US-based financial houses in the manipulation of those nations’ economies the past decade.” (Ron Jacobs)

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