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.