The news of the death of former South African President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela reverberated across the world, sparking a wave of mourning from Soweto – an infamous “black-only” township during the apartheid era where Madiba, as Mandela was affectionately known, once lived – to London and New York. Both an inspiring and, at times, controversial figure, in his old age Mandela acquired legendary status as a statesman. He was widely celebrated at home as the father of modern South Africa and globally as the heir to Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violent resistance against oppression. To this day, Mandela’s political legacy carries great weight everywhere, but nowhere more so than in President Barack Obama’s White House.
“Through his fierce dignity and unbending will to sacrifice his own freedom for the freedom of others, Madiba transformed South Africa and moved all of us,” said a visibly touched Obama in remarks he delivered immediately following Mandela’s passing. “His journey from a prisoner to a president embodied the promise that human beings and countries can change for the better.”
The relationship between the first black president of South Africa and the first black president of the United States always remained largely symbolic. They met in person only once, in a Washington, D.C. hotel room in 2005, when Obama was a young senator from Illinois though already a rising star in Democratic politics. In the following years, the two talked on the phone a few times as Madiba’s failing health didn’t allow for more contact, even during repeated visits by Obama to South Africa (in 2011, First Lady Michelle Obama, her two daughters Malia and Sasha, and her mother, privately went to see Mandela in Johannesburg).
Nevertheless, Obama never made it a secret that he considered Mandela one of the most important influences shaping his calling. “I am one of the countless millions who drew inspiration from Nelson Mandela’s life,” the President said recently. “My very first political action – the first thing I ever did that involved an issue or a policy or politics – was a protest against apartheid. I would study his words and his writings […] and like so many around the globe, I cannot fully imagine my own life without the example that Nelson Mandela set.”
Many people all around the world have agreed that there is a fine but important thread linking the exceptional lives of these two men. The Nobel Peace Prize committee gave the award to Obama in 2009 – with what some say was exceeding and at the time unjustified enthusiasm; Mandela had received it jointly with then-South African President Frederik Willem de Klerk in 1993. When American voters elected Obama in 2008, they also held great hopes that he would be a similarly transformative figure in the history of race relations in the US.
In a sense, this comparison, and coming into office preceded by sky-high expectations, has done more harm than good to Obama. Partially as a result of the financial crisis, which has absorbed almost all of his energy since he was inaugurated in January of 2009, and partially as a result of the inflexible Republican opposition to pretty much every single initiative by his administration, Obama has had precious little time to devote to changing American society at the core.
Therefore, beyond the symbolic value of his two terms at the White House, there isn’t much evidence that Obama’s presidency has had any effect on the entrenched inequality that still separates black and whites in America. For proof of this, one must think no further than the shooting of unarmed African American teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012 – and the suspect’s (George Zimmerman) controversial acquittal. Even more importantly, the economic standing of African Americans has only deteriorated in recent years, with much of their wealth wiped out and the gap between black and white families doubling during the recession.
Overall, Obama seems to be well aware that the example set by Mandela is hard, if not impossible, for him to replicate, and therefore has shied away from any comparison with the man he has often called his “personal hero.”
At the same time, when putting the two side-by-side it is important to remember that Madiba’s quasi-mythical standing is at least in part due to the world gaining perspective on his life achievements through the years. When he was Obama’s age, Mandela was still in prison, his release decades away. The international movement to end apartheid hadn’t even started yet. Though his approval ratings have hit record lows in recent weeks, what with the troubled rollout of the health reform law, at 52 years of age Obama is still relatively young and has many years ahead of him, even beyond the White House, to build his legacy.
This week the Obamas will travel to South Africa to attend Mandela’s funeral on December 15th and pay their respects. It will undoubtedly be an important moment of reflection for the President at a difficult time in his political career.