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Nelson Mandela: a precursor to Barack Obama

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By Elleke Boehmer


Not long before Barack Obama was first elected President of the United States, in October 2008, the African American novelist Alice Walker commented that the then still Senator Obama, as the leader in waiting of the most powerful nation on earth, might be regarded as a worthy successor to the towering figure of Mandela. She discerned within the American leader’s authoritative and crusading self-presentation the template of Robben Island’s most famous one-time resident.

In the run-up to Nelson Mandela’s 95th birthday on 18 July this year, still within the first year of Obama’s second term as US President, it is an interesting line of thought to pursue: to what extent might we regard the older man as a precursor to the younger. Especially in so far as Obama, too, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, if in a prospective way in 2008 to stand beside Mandela’s award in 1993, might lines of influence and political genealogy be traced between them? Is it possible to say that Mandela showed Obama a way to moral power and political authority (which is not of course to overlook the important inspiration of others, including another Nobel Peace Laureate, Martin Luther King, Jr.)? In these paragraphs I’d like to unwrap the dynamics and semantics of this proposed line of inheritance a little more and ask what might be involved when we say that Obama stands on the shoulders of Mandela.

Of course any comparison between the leaders Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama must recognize that they emerge out of very different historical times, family backgrounds, and national geographies. To begin with, Mandela was born in 1918, Obama several generations later in August 1961. Obama is American though of part-African (Kenyan) descent; Mandela stems from a minor branch of a Xhosa royal family.  Yet for these very reasons the parallels between them in terms of leadership style and approach are the more striking, as of course are the connections that can be drawn between their political reputations and historical legacy, including the remarkable charisma that unites them. Both embody that quality of “individual personality … set apart from ordinary men,” defined as the charisma of a great leader by social theorist Max Weber. Both were keenly aware from the beginning of their leadership that their good guidance could help found, consolidate, and safeguard traditions of democracy for their countries. At the same time they saw, too, that they, in themselves, could represent important sources of inspiration and legitimation for those national communities. Moreover, perceiving this, both were open to moulding their own symbol status or iconicity—though Mandela perhaps more overtly and ostentatiously than Obama. For example, Mandela was always keen to play to the ways in which his own life or biography could be seen to underpin South Africa’s long road to freedom. If Obama’s triumph in 2008 could be viewed as representing the fulfilment of Martin Luther King’s dream, this was something that he certainly signaled in his Acceptance and Inaugural Speeches in 2008 and 2009. Not coincidentally perhaps, both Mandela and Obama were trained as lawyers, and share a keen sense of the power of the word and the symbol, of verbal advocacy and defence.

Both men, too, derived strength and inspiration from their African descent. Obama has many times recognized, most obviously in Dreams from My Father, that it wasn’t till he had accepted his black identity as fundamental to his makeup that he was able to step forward as a representative and leader of Americans of all races. As for Mandela, the pride in his Xhosa background and traditions that was instilled in him through his upbringing was essential for the resilience he showed in withstanding apartheid and feeling that he could speak for all South Africans, black and white. In the case of both leaders, therefore, not merely their African descent but how they embraced it, were key catalysts in the mix of character, charisma, and achievement that underpinned their leadership. Throughout, both leaders have been concerned to resist and at all levels to work against the pariah status to which Africa and Africans were once relegated in history.

But perhaps the most persuasive obvious commonality between them lies in respect of their media performances (which Alice Walker in the run-up to Obama’s first election no doubt had in forefront of her mind). Mandela is more formal and stilted in his political rhetoric than Obama, yet both leaders, building on their self-perceived messianic roles in history, have not been averse to striking the prophetic note. Both Obama’s acceptance speeches have been particularly compelling in their reference to moving on from the suffering of the past to a more hopeful and united future. His rhetoric has called an American nation into being in which African Americans regardless of their class have an equal status, and equal opportunities, to white Americans. As for Mandela, he, too, in this many speeches after his release in 1990 addressed his exhortatory and as ever performative remarks to a united South Africa: “Let freedom reign. Let a new age dawn.” Here was the President in waiting announcing himself both to the world and to his strife-torn country as a man proceeding with caution, yet filled with hope, much like Barack Obama some 14 years on.

Elleke Boehmer is Professor of World Literature in English, University of Oxford and the author of Nelson Mandela: A Very Short Introduction.

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Image credit: By David Lee Katz, Special Assistant to Senator Barack Obama [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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