On Tuesday, July 17, Barack Obama gave what he deemed his "most important speech since leaving office" to tens of thousands of South African residents. The speech was given in honor of Nelson Mandela's centennial birthday, leaving no better time to address issues about which the activist would have indeed spoken out. Taking a look at the deeply rooted connections between South Africa and the United States, the history behind Obama's speech is profound and essential.
The speech, titled "Renewing the Mandela Legacy and Promoting Active Citizenship in a Changing World,” specifically looked at divisive politics — a concept deeply rooted in the fabrics of both the U.S. and South Africa.
According to Time, speaking briefly at an anti-apartheid rally in 1981 at Los Angeles' Occidental College was the first thing Obama ever did that involved an issue or a policy or politics. Moreover, the fight for equality in both countries has been more intertwined than some may have realized.“There’s a struggle going on!” he said in his 1981 speech. “It’s happening an ocean away. But it’s a struggle that touches each and every one of us. Whether we know it or not.”
In the early 20th century, America became a destination for black South Africans to come and get an education, Time reports. As more South Africans came to America, those still residing in their native country were able to learn about the plights of African Americans. As political, cultural and communal exchange continued between the black populations of both places, the South African government looked to sever ties. As fewer African Americans were able to come into South Africa, apartheid raged into the 1990s.However, the American civil rights movement of the 1960s continued to give hope that a change would come in South Africa.
“Black South Africans who couldn’t go to America idealized the African American position on some level, and saw them as racial role models who came out of hundreds of years of slavery and created some type of advancement for themselves — [whether] as sports heroes or writers — despite Jim Crow,” historian Robert Trent Vinson said.Awareness of the political grief in South Africa reached a peak in the 1980s, and apartheid didn't end until Mandela's release from jail (1990) and election as president in 1994. As more Americans learned of what happened in South Africa, the perseverance and him overcoming, there seemed to be a shift in inspiration.
“There’s almost a reversal in the historical relationship,” Vinson said. “Now it’s African Americans looking up to black South Africans like Mandela, people who fought to overturn the worst racial domination in [the] world since Nazi Germany and could replace it with a democratic, non-racial society. Mandela becomes this great example for what African-Americans could possibly do. We in America are still trying to work with the idea of multiracial democracy.”
That inspiration of South African perseverance seemed to come full circle in Obama’s first political speech after no longer being in the Oval Office."We have to follow Madiba's (Mandela's) example of persistence and hope. It's tempting right now to give in to cynicism. To believe that recent shifts in global politics are too powerful to push back. That the pendulum has swung permanently,” Obama said in his speech. “Just as people spoke about the triumph of democracy in the '90s, now you're hearing people talk about the end of democracy and the triumph of tribalism and the strongman. We have to resist that cynicism because we've been through darker times."
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