Obama cautions against the politics of xenophobia and the rejection of facts in South Africa speech


Former president Barack Obama’s first speech on the African continent since leaving the White House was not about his successor.

But it was clear his lecture to mark the 100th birthday of former South African president Nelson Mandela was aimed at encouraging the world to adopt the philosophies of the late anti-apartheid leader and not those of some of the “strongmen” heads of state.

“I believe in Nelson Mandela’s vision. I believe in a vision shared by Gandhi and [Martin Luther] King and Abraham Lincoln. I believe in a vision of equality, justice, freedom and multiracial democracy, built on the premise that all people are created equal,” Obama said.

Obama has often spoken of how much Mandela, a liberal leader with activist roots, influenced him. And he gave an eulogy at the president’s 2013 memorial service. On Tuesday, he delivered the keynote a day after President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin met for a summit where the latter admitted he wanted Trump to beat Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who campaigned to continue the Obama agenda, in the 2016 election.

Since Trump was elected, 6 in 10 Americans have said race relations have gotten worse, according to the Pew Research Center. And people in other countries have expressed decreased confidence in the United States’ leadership in international affairs since Obama left the White House, according to 2017 Pew center survey.

Obama criticized the direction taken by some world leaders, as he sees it. He said promoting a political worldview rooted in otherizing individuals could have tragic consequences.

“Countries that rely on xenophobia — eventually those countries find themselves consumed by civil war or an outside war. Check the history books. History shows how easily people can be convinced to turn on those who are different,” he said.

Since first entered Obam the Oval Office, the use of social media has expanded to influence global elections, spread political conspiracy theories and as a bully pulpit for political leaders. As countries in Africa and elsewhere seek to become even more digitally engaged, Obama cautioned that, at its worst, social media can be used to cause divisions and spread hate and lies. U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that the Russian government’s interference in the 2016 election included manipulating Facebook.

Social media are “now being used spread hatred, paranoia and conspiracy theories instead of knowledge, ideas and cultural linkages,” he said.

Obama’s speech was attended by many local and national political leaders in Africa. He condemned the prevalence of lies unapologetically coming from the highest levels of government.

“Unfortunately, too much of politics today seems to reject the very concept of objective truth. People just make stuff up,” he said. “We see the utter loss of shame among political leaders where they’re caught in a lie, and they just double down, and they lie some more.”

Whether voters and politicos around the world will embrace Obama’s message, agenda and policies is unclear. What appears more likely now is that Obama’s legacy — perhaps particularly internationally — will be attempting to help people recognize that the new world order under Trump is not normal.

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