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'We've Been Through Darker Times': Barack Obama Speaks In South Africa

Jul 17, 2018
Originally published on July 17, 2018 7:21 pm

Updated at 12:05 p.m. ET.

Former President Barack Obama celebrated Nelson Mandela's life and legacy in South Africa on Tuesday with a speech that focused not only on the freedom Mandela came to symbolize, but the long walk it took to get there.

"We have to follow Madiba's example of persistence and hope," Obama said, using Mandela's clan name. "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. 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 strong man. We have to resist that cynicism, because we've been through darker times."

It was one of Obama's most high-profile appearances since leaving the White House 18 months ago and a preview of what could be an active campaign schedule for the former president before the midterm elections this fall.

Obama spoke to a crowd of about 15,000 in a Johannesburg cricket stadium on the eve of what would have been Mandela's 100th birthday. He remarked on the progress that swept the globe during Mandela's lifetime — with greater prosperity and opportunity — but also that backlash that followed in recent years, in the wake of inequality and insecurity.

"A politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment began to appear and that kind of politics is now on the move," Obama said. "It is in part because of the failures of governments and powerful elites to squarely address the shortcomings and contradictions of this international order that we now see much of the world threatening to return to an older, a more dangerous, a more brutal way of doing business."

Obama argued that progressives need to push back against those trends by emphasizing more inclusive opportunity and international cooperation.

"We have a better story to tell," he said. "But to say that our vision for the future is better is not to say that it will inevitably win. Because history also shows the power of fear."

Obama has generally kept a low profile since leaving office and has avoided criticizing his successor directly. But on rare occasions, the former president has spoken up in defense of inclusive democratic values.

Last year, Obama told a large crowd near the Brandenburg Gate in Germany that in a modern, interconnected world, "We can't isolate ourselves. We can't hide behind a wall."

It was an implicit rebuke of President Trump's "America First" policies, delivered at a moment when Trump was scolding NATO allies for what he saw as inadequate defense spending — something Trump did again last week.

Obama also defended the global economic order, saying it had delivered unparalleled peace and prosperity. But he acknowledged that order was under attack.

"It has to be continually renewed, because there is a competing narrative of fear and xenophobia and nationalism and intolerance," Obama said. "We have to push back against those trends."

Last week, Trump told reporters in the U.K. that immigration is changing the culture of Europe in a negative way.

"I know it's politically not necessarily correct to say that, but I'll say it and I'll say it loud," Trump said.

Obama's critiques of Trump and his party are likely to grow more frequent this fall, when the former president is expected to campaign actively for Democratic House and Senate candidates.

When he traveled as president, Obama often made it a point to meet with young people who might form the next generation of leaders, and he'll do so again this week in South Africa. He's hosting a town hall in Johannesburg on Wednesday for 200 rising African leaders.

But Obama is also looking beyond the United States and the next election.

"Mandela said, 'Young people are capable, when aroused, of bringing down the towers of oppression and raising the banners of freedom," Obama recalled. "Now's a good time to be aroused."

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Former President Barack Obama gave a speech in South Africa today honoring the legacy of Nelson Mandela. It's one of Obama's most high-profile appearances since he left the White House 18 months ago. And it offered a kind of preview of what we might hear from the former president this fall when Obama is expected to campaign for his fellow Democrats running in the midterm elections. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in foreign language).

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Some 14,000 South Africans gathered in a Johannesburg cricket stadium on the eve of what would have been Mandela's 100th birthday. Obama, who calls Mandela the inspiration for his own political activism, recalled the day in 1990 when the anti-apartheid leader was released after 27 years in prison. The Berlin Wall had come down just three months earlier, and Obama said the world seemed full of hope for the spread of democracy, prosperity and freedom.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: And all that progress is real. It has been broad, and it has been deep, and it all happened in what by the standards of human history was nothing more than a blink of an eye.

HORSLEY: But Obama says globalization has also brought rising inequality and insecurity, ultimately triggering a political backlash that caught many observers by surprise.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: And 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 strong man.

HORSLEY: Obama urged his audience not to surrender to that kind of cynicism. He held up Mandela as an example of perseverance in the face of adversity.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: We've been through darker times. We've been in lower valleys.

HORSLEY: Obama has generally avoided the spotlight since leaving office last year, but he is expected to campaign for his fellow Democrats this fall. Progressives, he says, have a good story to tell, but they have to make their case to people who feel genuinely uneasy about the changes around them. And they can't talk only to themselves.

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OBAMA: Democracy demands that we're able also to get inside the reality of people who are different than us so we can understand their point of view. Maybe we can change their minds, but maybe they'll change ours.

HORSLEY: Obama did not mention President Trump by name, but he did criticize politicians who, in his words, just make stuff up. And while Trump told a British newspaper last week that mass immigration is changing the culture of Europe in a negative way, Obama argued for a more inclusive culture, one that's tolerant, dynamic and multiracial.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: And if you doubt that, just ask the French football team that just won the World Cup...

(CHEERING)

OBAMA: ...Because not all of those folks - not all of those folks look like Gauls to me...

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: ...But they're French.

HORSLEY: As he often did when he was president, Obama will host a town hall meeting in Johannesburg tomorrow for some 200 young African leaders. He quoted Mandela, who said young people are capable when aroused of bringing down the towers of oppression and raising the banners of freedom. Obama added, now's a good time to be aroused. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.