02 Jul 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: BDlive
We should heed Obama’s message of the 'universal bridge' in the run-up to next year’s elections, writes Tony Leon
NOSTALGIA without memory is a common malady," warns David Remnick, whose biography of US President Barack Obama, The Bridge, is certainly one of the most thoughtful books that the rise to power of the 44th US president has inspired. The biography derives its title from the remark of US civil rights veteran and congressman John Lewis that "Barack Obama is what comes at the end of that bridge in Selma" — a reference to one of the fiercest crucibles of the struggle for racial equality and voting rights in segregationist Alabama, back in January 1965.
Fast-forward to Sunday and Obama in a masterful address at the University of Cape Town (UCT), which combined nostalgia and memory coupled with hopeful and warning shots on Africa’s future, reminded his audience that the bridge to his keynote address on his 36-hour whirlwind tour of South Africa was first constructed by slain US senator Bobby Kennedy.
From the same podium, 47 years ago, Kennedy — speaking when the dark night of apartheid seemed without end and the US civil rights struggle was still in its infancy — inspired his audience and the world with his soaring rhetoric about the hopefulness of individual agency in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Obama quoted from that famous speech: "Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."
My own bridge to memory, not nostalgia, of presidential visits past was constructed of more modest, but unforgettable, material. I recalled standing for more than two hours outside the presidential guesthouse in Pretoria in July 2003 in order to attend a luncheon in honour of then president George Bush. Other than the burdensome and endless security hoops guests were obliged to jump through, I remember little of the detail of the event, except for Bush’s rather curious description of then president Thabo Mbeki as his "point man" on Zimbabwe. A decade later and a new "point man" in Pretoria notwithstanding, the tyrant across the Limpopo remains enthroned; although as Obama reminded his audience, he is now hemmed in by a new constitution and, he did not add, by the ravages of time.
But my memory of queuing in the cold allowed me to pass on the kind invitation from the US consulate in Cape Town to attend the UCT shindig in person and this time, wiser and older, to watch it on TV from the comfort of home. Doubtless I denied myself engagement with a suitably enthralled crowd of the local good and the great. But it did allow the indulgence of channel-surfing while the audience awaited the speech. This provided a study in contrasts: at more or less the precise moment Obama entered the auditorium on the southern tip of Africa, tens of thousands of angry Egyptians were milling on the continent’s northern end in Tahrir Square, Cairo. They were demanding the resignation of the president. Mohamed Mursi, whom they had elected in hopeful and peaceful circumstances just one year ago, now in a remarkably short spell in office, seems to have offended just about every constituency in his vast nation, except for his shadowy band of true believers in the Muslim Brotherhood. The economy is flat on its back, the state is bankrupt, the army remains privileged and the opposition, fractured as it is, is excluded from the governing consensus. But it was, in fact, in Cairo in June 2009, also at a famous African university, Al Azhar, that Obama made another consequential speech. This was about 18 months before the "Arab Spring" lit the fires of resistance against tottering authoritarian rulers in North Africa and beyond. That speech offered his famous balance of hope and change for reset relations between the West and Muslims.
But it also came coupled with a less-remembered warning about democracy: "There are some who advocate for democracy only when they are out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others…. Government of the people by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party."
That’s the universal bridge that spans the divide between Africa, north and south, and all countries in between. We should heed its message in the run-up to next year’s elections here at home, and what comes afterwards.
• Leon is the author of The Accidental Ambassador (Pan Macmillan). Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA