by Matthew Charlesworth SJ
The highlight for me this last week was listening to former US President Barack Obama deliver the Annual Nelson Mandela lecture. The week was replete with great memories of Madiba rallying our nation towards a new hope. President Ramaphosa’s address, recalling his Thuma Mina challenge, was reminiscent of the early years of democracy when you could feel the nation uniting towards a common goal. We need leaders who invite us to become our best selves and encourage us and not ones that play on our fears and weaknesses.
Obama did something different – by asking us to remember our past so as to hope again.
He said: “Madiba’s light shone so brightly, even from that narrow Robben Island cell, that in the late ’70s he could inspire a young college student on the other side of the world to reexamine his own priorities, could make me consider the small role I might play in bending the arc of the world towards justice. And when later, as a law student, I witnessed Madiba emerge from prison, just a few months, you’ll recall, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I felt the same wave of hope that washed through hearts all around the world. Do you remember that feeling? It seemed as if the forces of progress were on the march, that they were inexorable. Each step he took, you felt this is the moment when the old structures of violence and repression and ancient hatreds that had so long stunted people’s lives and confined the human spirit – that all that was crumbling before our eyes. …We understood that it was not just the subjugated, the oppressed who were being freed from the shackles of the past. The subjugator was being offered a gift, being given a chance to see in a new way, being given a chance to participate in the work of building a better world.”
Obama’s speech was not blind to the problems of our world. He described the crossroads at which we find ourselves: between a vision of hope, justice and freedom versus one of fear, resentment and rising inequality. He encouraged us to reject the latter and build on the former.
We were reminded of just how far we have journeyed as a nation. Obama recalled the vision that our country had aspired to, a “vision of equality and justice and freedom and multi-racial democracy, built on the premise that all people are created equal, and they’re endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights.” Our rights stem from our inherent human dignity. Our duty is not only to claim that for ourselves but to recognise it in others.
The injunction to remember is also biblical. The Old Testament is filled with stories asking the Jews to remember what God has done for them. When they forgot their history and who they were called to be, things always went wrong for them.
As we celebrate Madiba and remember where we have come from, let us recommit ourselves to building a society that is free, just and hopeful. This will require sacrifice and hard work. Madiba’s legacy offers us a glimpse of what we can become and where we can go. It is now up to us.
The 16th Nelson Mandela Annual lecture
by Former US President Barack Obama