President Barack Obama cautioned listeners against embracing identity politics during a speech in South Africa Tuesday, calling on them to instead follow Nelson Mandela’s example of seeking to understand the perspective of those who are different.
In an address commemorating the 100th anniversary of Mandela’s birth, Obama rejected the tendency, commonly embraced by those on the political fringes, to claim sole authority to speak about a given political issue based on an immutable characteristic such as race or sexual orientation.
“We’re able also to get inside the reality of people who are different from us so we can understand their point of view. Maybe we can change their minds but maybe they’ll change ours,” Obama said. “And you can’t do this if you just out of hand disregard what your opponents have to say from the start.”
“And you can’t do it if you insist that those who aren’t like you, because they’re white or because they’re male, that somehow there’s no way they can understand what I’m feeling, that somehow they lack the standing to speak on certain matters” he added.
The former commander-in-chief then cited the example of Mandela, who was jailed for almost three decades for organizing against apartheid, South Africa’s system of state-sanctioned segregation.
“Madiba lived this complexity,” Obama said, employing Mandela’s clan name. “In prison he studied Afrikaans so that he could better understand the people who were jailing him. And when he got out of prison, he extended a hand to the people who were jailing him because he understood that they had to be a part of the democratic South Africa that he wanted to build.”
Earlier in the address, which took place just one day after President Trump’s widely criticized joint press conference with Vladimir Putin, Obama railed against the ascendancy of “strongman politics”
“The politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment began to appear. And that kind of politics is now on the move. It’s on the move at a pace that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago,” he told the crowd of roughly 15,000 gathered in Johannesburg. “I am not being alarmist, I’m simply stating the facts. Look around — strongman politics are ascendant, suddenly, whereby elections and some pretense of democracy are maintained, the form of it, where those in powers seek to undermine every institution or norm that gives democracy meaning.”