A few months ago, as Americans celebrated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, many comparisons were made between Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Obama.
In truth, the more apt parallel may be between Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama. They are in many ways kindred spirits; patient, confident men who rose to power, employing their unifying styles to become the first black presidents of their respective countries.
“While it took twenty-seven years in prison to mold the Nelson Mandela we know, the forty-eight-year-old American president seems to have achieved a Mandela-like temperament without the long years of sacrifice,” wrote Richard Stengel, who collaborated with Mandela on his 1994 autobiography, called Long Walk to Freedom.
Stengel in a 2010 piece continued, “Obama’s self-discipline, his willingness to listen and to share credit, his inclusion of his rivals in his administration, and his belief that people want things explained, all seem like a twenty first-century version of Mandela’s values and persona. While Mandela’s worldview was forged in the cauldron of racial politics, Obama is creating a post-racial political model. Whatever Mandela may or may not think of the new American president, Obama is in many ways his true successor on the world stage.”
Obama did know not Mandela well personally, as the two only met once, in 2005 in Washington. When Obama visited South Africa earlier this year, Mandela was ailing, and the American president opted against pushing for a meeting. Instead, Obama visited Robben Island, where Mandela had been long imprisoned.
The American president, however, has spoken often about his admiration for Mandela from afar. Obama, while a student at Occidental College in California, joined protests against the school’s investments in South Africa and closely followed the career of Mandela, reading his writings and studying his life as an inspiration.
“I am one of the countless millions who drew inspiration from Nelson Mandela’s life,” Obama said Thursday, after learning of Mandela’s death. “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 studied his words and his writings. The day that he was released from prison gave me a sense of what human beings can do when they’re guided by their hopes and not by their fears. And like so many around the globe, I cannot fully imagine my own life without the example that Nelson Mandela set, and so long as I live I will do what I can to learn from him.”
Obama himself has downplayed the parallels between himself and Mandela, emphasizing the much more challenging circumstances of the South African leader’s life.
“President Obama would believe that the challenges he has faced pale in comparison to those faced by President Mandela,” top Obama aide Valerie Jarrett told the Associated Press earlier this year.
But in truth, decades from now, Obama is likely to be spoken of in Mandela-like terms. Mandela was a controversial figure during his time as a political leader in South Africa. He was, as Obama is experiencing today, not universally liked.
Once President Obama leaves electoral politics, it will easier to remember his singular, history-altering accomplishment: being elected president in a country in which someone of his skin color might have been a slave only 150 years before and would have been barred from attending certain schools 60 years earlier.