In Johannesburg speech, Obama makes subtle digs at Trumpism

Barack Obama warned against "strongman politics" too

By Nicole Karlis
July 17, 2018 11:14PM (UTC)
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Barack Obama delivers his speech at the 16th Annual Nelson Mandela Lecture at the Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa, July 17, 2018. (AP/Themba Hadebe)

Former President Barack Obama has been cautious about being too publicly critical of his successor. That makes Obama's most recent remarks, issued during a speech South Africa this week, all the more remarkable — as they illustrate the depth of the former president's analysis of the political situation, while indirectly throwing some shade at President Trump.

In a speech in Johannesburg, South Africa, commemorating the late South African leader Nelson Mandela (which his remarks mostly focused on), Obama did deviate slightly to comment on current events.


"But in the strange and uncertain times that we are in — and they are strange, and they are uncertain, with each day's news cycles bringing more head-spinning and disturbing headlines — I thought maybe it would be useful to step back for a moment and try to get some perspective, so I hope you'll indulge me," he told the crowd, via CBS.

Later on he said it was “surprising” to him that he had to remind the crowd we are all humans.

“We are all human, our differences are all superficial and that we should treat each other with care and respect,” he said. "I would have thought we would have figured that out by now. I thought that basic notion was well-established [. . . ] turns out in this recent drift in reactionary politics, the struggle for basic justice is never truly finished."


He said that the nationalist turn in politics is rooted in fear.

"It's on a move at a pace that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago. I am not being alarmist I am simply stating the facts," he said, adding that "strongmen politics" are rising.

"The free press is under attack, censorship and state control of media is the rise, social media — once seen as a mechanism to promote knowledge and understanding and solidarity — proved to be just as effective promoting hatred and paranoia and propaganda and conspiracy theories," Obama said.


"Politicians have always lied, but it used to be if you caught them lying, they'd be like, 'oh man!' Now they just keep on lying," the former president added.

Obama suggested that on the late Mandela’s 100th birthday, “the world stands a crossroad.”


"I believe in Nelson Mandela's vision, I believe in a vision shared by Gandhi and King and Abraham Lincoln, I believe in a vision of equality and justice and freedom and multi-racial democracy based on a premise that all people are created equally," he concluded.

Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a staff writer at Salon. She covers health, science, tech and gender politics. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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Authoritarianism Barack Obama Democracy Donald Trump Helsinki Summit Nelson Mandela South Africa