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Obama Celebrates Nelson Mandela's Legacy In Johannesburg Speech


Former President Barack Obama is delivering a speech as we speak in South Africa to mark the centennial of the birth of Nelson Mandela. It is one of Obama's most high-profile appearances since leaving the White House 18 months ago. He warned that what he called the politics of fear are on the move.


BARACK OBAMA: With each day's news cycles bringing more heads spinning and disturbing headlines, I thought maybe it would be useful to step back for a moment and try to get some perspective.

GREENE: Let's get some perspective on this speech from NPR's Scott Horsley, who has been listening in. Hi there, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you, David.

GREENE: So this speech today was not supposed to be overtly political, and Obama has said that Nelson Mandela was really the inspiration for his own political career, right? So it has to be quite a moment for him to be giving this speech. What was his overall message?

HORSLEY: Well, it was in general a hopeful speech. Hope is obviously a part of the Obama brand. He talked about developments over the last century, the spread of opportunity and prosperity. And he talked about how that was sort of symbolized in that moment almost three decades ago when Mandela was released from prison just a couple of months after the Berlin Wall came down.


OBAMA: You'll remember that feeling. It seemed as if the forces of progress were on the march, that they were inexorable.

GREENE: Wow. So this really was a celebration of Mandela's legacy on the eve of what would have been his 100th birthday. But it sounds, though, like Obama also wanted to use this to sort of give a cautionary message, right?

HORSLEY: Absolutely. He said those progressive forces were not inexorable and that even as prosperity and democracy spread, inequality and insecurity came with it. And as a result, he said, around the turn of the century there were a lot of people who missed what would turn out to be a powerful political backlash.


OBAMA: In fact, it is in part because of the failures of governments and powerful elites to squarely address the shortcomings and contradictions of this international order that we now see much of the world threatening to return to an older, a more dangerous, a more brutal way of doing business.

HORSLEY: And that older way of doing business, he said, is characterized by strongman politics, by authoritarianism, by tribalism and xenophobia. The former president did not mention the current President Donald Trump by name, but clearly Trump is emblematic of the movement that Obama was describing here.

GREENE: Interesting. Deciding not to bring up the name of his successor directly but talking more thematically. But I guess there's no hiding what he was sort of addressing there.

HORSLEY: That's right. And this is not the first time Obama has done this. He has generally kept a low profile since he left office, but there have been some exceptions. For example, just a little over a year ago, Obama engaged in a conversation near the Brandenburg Gate in Germany with Chancellor Merkel where he hit on many of these same themes. This has been a long-standing concern for Obama. We heard it in his own exit speech. We heard it in his final address to the United Nations. His story is that the progressives have a story to tell, but they can't take their progress for granted and they need to make that case. And we expect we'll be hearing more from Obama making that case this fall as we get closer to the midterm elections.

GREENE: The midterm elections that are very important to his party. All right. NPR's Scott Horsley.

Scott, we appreciate it.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.