By Aayesha Soni and Ebrahim Fakir
As South Africans, we are ashamed that the war mongering human rights abuser Barack Obama has been called upon to honour a man whose struggles have contributed to allowing us to live freely in South Africa today.
Whenever visiting a foreign country, upon enquiry by a local as to where we come from, the response “South Africa” elicits an immediate and enthusiastic response: “Nelson Mandela!” This is frequently followed by a ramble, usually in broken English, interspersed with expressions in a language we don’t understand. But the kernel of the message, albeit in broken English, is universally the same. The recognition of struggle and sacrifice, for freedom, liberation and human rights. Mandela is globally synonymous with the timeless humanist ideals of: truth, honour, justice, rights, equality, redistribution, fairness, forgiveness, tolerance and peace. These are the most traditional of values, but also the most radical virtues of the “good society”.
This year marks the centenary of the birth of this remarkable leader, who despite many failings in government, established the foundation stone on which to advance the “good society” in South Africa, and through his influence, globally. He should be celebrated by a person who not only understands and imbibes his values, but who attempts to emulate the manner in which he lived and led.
It is bewildering then, that those entrusted with Mandela’s legacy have chosen someone who is as far from Mandela’s values and ideals, as Barack Obama is, to honour his legacy.
If we scratch beneath the surface of the soaring oratory, and slick public relations image of the rhetoric of reform and “struggle” that supposedly characterises Obama being the first black president of the United States, an entirely different picture of Obama emerges. Domestically, in the US Obama was in reality a failure in delivering the hope and change rhetoric that inspired his “yes, we can” ascent to the US presidency.
Instead, it left Americans hopeless and with little change. In America, he traded small bits of social mobility for a limited number of people, in order to largely preserve the unequal status quo. While Obama inherited a broken economy, he stabilised it, reformed the banking sector, stabilised the US housing market and presided over an expansion in jobs, reducing unemployment to 7%. But the benefits of these continued to largely advantage the already bloated finance sector already grown fat on the indiscretions of rapacious American capitalism.
He attempted universal health insurance cover for Americans but left a whopping 40% of working class Americans uninsured, even after his Obamacare Act which has subsequently been reversed and further eroded by Trump. On economic growth he sustained modest increases which, unfortunately for the rest of the world, came at the cost of skewed tariff and trade rules together with the usually attendant US bullying. South Africans should know. They were badgered by Obama into buying unwanted chicken from the leftovers in the US market.
Obama more interventionist than Bush
Internationally, Obama represented the smiling face of murder, mayhem, war and destruction. As commander in chief, Obama bombed seven countries during his eight years in office. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize mere months into his tenure, it is significant that with the benefit of hindsight, many of his own supporters believe the award was “a mistake”.
He received the prize in the hope that he would be fundamentally different from his predecessor, George W Bush. Paradoxically, Obama was even more interventionist than Bush. US military data from 2016 shows that the US dropped more than 26 000 bombs in seven countries resulting in the deaths of 3797 people, a number most international organisations agree is grossly under-estimated.
Obama embraced drone attacks with alacrity, authorising 506 known drone strikes, compared to the 50 under Bush. He initiated “targeted assassinations”, even of US citizens. Drones are nothing short of killing machines, instruments of effecting the death penalty without any due process. In his seminal work, “Crimes Against Humanity”, Geoffrey Robertson asserts that the killing of Anwar Awlaki and his 16-year-old son through a drone strike in Yemen violated the Fifth Amendment of the US constitution.
To be sure, American trade and growth numbers were bolstered by Obama, but it is significant that a large portion of this was through dramatically increasing US weapons exports, earning Obama the ignominy of being the greatest arms exporter since World War II.
Mandela lived the courage of his convictions
Nelson Mandela, by contrast lived the courage of his convictions. Apart from the colour of their skins, Obama and Mandela share little else in common. Professor Njabulo Ndebele from the Nelson Mandela Foundation (NMF) justified the choice of inviting Obama as the official speaker for Centenary Mandela lecture on the basis that: “In an era defined by worsening tensions between people in which the spectre of exclusion and intolerance across the world seems to become normalised, the messages of President Obama, like those of Madiba, must be given space.”
This sentence seems garbled and entirely misplaced. It is difficult to identify what the shared values and commonalities between Obama and Mandela are, and the suggestion that Obama’s views be provided a space, seems trite. After all, the question remains unanswered, what virtues and values is a tainted figure like Obama expected to propound upon?
A presidency of lies
Obama’s presidency was littered with lies – from the lie of promising to withdraw all US troops in Afghanistan, to the lie of the cessation of torture as a political instrument – to the lie of closing down Guantanamo Bay; a detention centre where men lay imprisoned and tortured indefinitely, without legal representation or trial. Worse still, Obama had an utter disregard for the rights to health of the people he was engaged in a fabricated war with. In 2015, the Doctors without Borders (MSF) Trauma center in Kunduz, Afghanistan was hit by ceaseless bombing in the early hours of the morning by Obama’s military personnel.
The MSF has unequivocally reaffirmed that all parties to the “conflict”, including in Kabul and Washington, were clearly informed of the precise location of the facilities in Kunduz, however, bombing persisted for near an hour. Nine MSF staff were confirmed killed, as countless others lay seriously injured. The much-needed MSF facility now lies in ruin.
More astoundingly, the level of disregard for the basic principles that doctors commit to, in the preservation of life, have been violated on Obama’s express orders. There is mounting evidence of medical doctors being implicated in CIA torture programmes. A CIA torture report was compiled and released in 2012, which revealed the involvement of US army medical personnel in many of the black water, illegal prisons the US has in foreign countries and inside the US. Dr Vincent Lacopino, medical director at Physicians for Human Rights remarked: “As Physicians for Human Rights has established, health professionals were central to the CIA’s torture program. They designed the methods, medically monitored torture victims, engaged in unethical research and experimentation, and helped the CIA legitimise practices any responsible medical professional would consider beyond the pale.”
The NMF justifies inviting Obama because they conjecture that the memorial lecture is a space to provoke dialogue and stimulate reflection from a diverse rage of views and voices, even facilitating the views of those whom Mandela might have disagreed with. This is true. Effective democracies require dialogue and deliberation. But there are moral limits to whose views ought to be heard and legitimised. The facilitator of egregious war and terror should not be one of them. Especially one who bears no contrition for the atrocities and destruction he has ordered to be committed.
This is not to argue for untainted moral purity amongst leaders tasked with the onerous difficulties of government. But it is to argue that someone less morally blighted than Obama should be honouring Mandela’s centennial annual lecture.
Obama’s legacy can be defined as more lie than truth, more war than peace, more injustice than justice, more victimisation than protection, more vulnerability than safety. For a person who held the very real promise of refashioning the world the way in which Mandela did, Obama unfortunately paved the way for a more right-wing America and a more violent world.
Obama represents nothing more than the smiling “black face” of Yankee Jingoism and we dare say, that if Mandela were to be presented with these same facts, he would be as ashamed as we are today to have Obama address his centennial legacy.
Aayesha J Soni is a medical doctor in public practice and a member of the Media Review Network. Ebrahim Fakir is Director of Programmes at ASRI and serves on the board of directors of Afesis-Corplan.