Former US president Barack Obama will deliver the Nelson Mandela annual lecture in Johannesburg on Tuesday.
His invitation to speak has drawn widespread criticism from South Africa’s civil society who say Obama’s record as president deems him unworthy of the honour of speaking at the late anti-apartheid icon’s birth centennial.
Activists, such as the Cage Africa advocacy group, say Obama is responsible for the expansion of military operations on the continent, the murder of hundreds of civilians through the use of drones, and the dismantling of Libya. The accusations leveled at Obama are not new.
The former president has long been accused of neglecting to address poverty in the US, failing to hold Wall Street and the economic elite accountable, and expanding the US imperial footprint across the globe.
Al Jazeera spoke to Cornel West, professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at the Harvard Divinity School in the US, about the debate over Obama’s invitation to speak at the Mandela centenary, and whether the criticism leveled against the former president is justified.
The Obama way
Al Jazeera: There continues to be opposition to Obama’s visit to deliver the Mandela lecture on Tuesday. What are your thoughts on this criticism?
Cornel West: On the one hand, Nelson Mandela was one of the great revolutionary figures but he himself ended up making neo-liberal deals with corporate elite both inside his country and outside.
We don’t want to lose sight of his tremendous vision and courage as a revolutionary leader as part of a social movement, and then the degree to which he himself ended up compromising by making neo-liberal deals with corporate elites.
Now Barack Obama – you have a neo-liberal black president of the most powerful empire in the world; he was never a revolutionary figure in the way Nelson Mandela was.
So I think the people have the right to protest because you don’t want Obama to come in and act as if somehow he is connected to the revolutionary Mandela. Now on the other hand, it is also true that you want a variety of voices to be heard in these lectures.
So I don’t think that everyone who comes to give a lecture – to give the Nelson Mandela lecture – needs to be a revolutionary. I believe in a variety of different perspectives.
I believe he has the right to speak, but people have to be honest about his policies, his crimes, and his vision of the world as president, as head of the empire.
I respect his right to speak, but he is held to account. People need to know the truth about what he did in the same way people need to know the truth about the arc of Mandela’s own life. So I really do stand very much in solidarity with those who are protesting.
Now the last thing you want to do is act as if Barack Obama is some kind of grand progressive figure. No, he was a neo-liberal counterfeit.
And we have seen the backlash now with the neo-fascists in the White House with Donald Trump. If you don’t speak to the poor and the working people in a progressive way, then the right wing is going to seize that vacuum.
And that’s exactly what Trump did. I am glad to see my brothers and sisters of all colours in South Africa are raising their voices when the former black face of the American empire comes to speak at [the] Nelson Mandela lecture.
Al Jazeera: You mention Trump. Is there really a difference between Obama and Trump in terms of how we see the American empire and its ambitions unfolding across the globe?
West: Sure there is a big difference. Barack Obama was the brilliant, poised, neo-liberal face of the American empire. Donald Trump is the know-nothing, xenophobic, white neo-fascist face of the American empire.
There are some continuities between Obama and Trump in terms of foreign policy and in terms of Wall Street friendliness, but there are some discontinuities… Obama was never the explicit xenophobe that Trump has been since he took office.
And there is a difference between a neo-liberal and a neo-fascist. Both of them for me require serious critique.
But there is a difference between a neo-liberal who has some kind of concern about spectacle, some kind of concern about style, and some kind of concern about the rule of law – even if the rule of law is very tilted against the poor.
But with neo-facists, its just his raw, crude, gangster to the core and xenophobic, and has no concern for the rule of law. That is what you get with Donald Trump.
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Al Jazeera: What role do you see Obama playing now that he is out of office. And is he important to Africans in your opinion?
West: I think he will always be important in the symbolic sense; not just being the first black president but convincing people that a black face in a very high place does not mean that progressive politics will follow.
And of course Africa doesn’t need to know that because you have a whole history of corrupt African leaders who have been exploiting their own people, embezzling the people’s money, ever since the heroic struggle against colonialism.
But Obama will always have that symbolic significance. But it’s also a lesson and the lesson is that if you don’t have the people’s interests at the centre – like the poor and working class, not corporate elites, not the upper middle class black, whites or others – you’re going to end up with imperial policies, corporate policies abroad and at home.
So people need to know that lesson, even given his smile and his brilliance.
You know I was in Senegal recently, and people came up to me and said: ‘You know Obama is seen as a sellout in Africa and you need to know that. And we agree with what you have been saying for eight years. And we know that you were trashed for eight years in America but we agree with you.’
This is what I was told in Senegal, over and over again. And it’s true, Obama did very little for Africa. He set up Africom, which is the US military presence there, and of course Libya was a massive criminal act – he led from behind but he is very much a part of it.
Al Jazeera: You mention Africom and the expansion of US military operations. Is this ultimately Obama’s legacy on the African continent?
West: This is right.
Al Jazeera: What does it say if the perception is that George W Bush did more for Africa than Obama? Or is this an unfair comparison?
West: Well President GW Bush didn’t do that much. He provided funds for AIDS and other diseases and he provided for entrepreneurial possibility. But he still kept a US imperial presence in place. So it’s not as if GW Bush set a high bar. He set a low bar.
But Obama didn’t even do as well as Bush. So in that sense, it’s a profound disappointment and an acknowledgement again, that no matter what colour a president is or a leader is, you have to measure a leader by their courage, their vision, and how they support working people. And there I think Obama was a failure. There is no doubt about it.
Al Jazeera: Finally, when Obama speaks, what do you hope he will say?
West: Well I think there are three major challenges when it comes to African leadership. First is you have got to fight poverty, something that Obama refused to do. You must fight poverty. You must enhance the conditions of working and poor people in Africa.
Second you got to fight corruption among the leaders. There is too much embezzlement, stealing, lack of accountability, lack of answerability, using taxpayers money to stuff in private pockets.
Third, you have got to accelerate women’s leadership on the continent. There is just too much patriarchy right now – when it comes not just to leadership but in society as a whole. You’ve got to unleash women’s genius and talent and potentiality. All three of those.
Poverty, corruption and ensuring that African women are able to reach the highest level. We have got to be honest about the poverty and the corruption among leaders and the professional elite that is escalating. I would add homophobia and transphobia, too.
So I hope Obama will talk about poverty and say that ‘I should have hit the issue head-on, but I didn’t. Martin Luther King Jr said we should hit poverty, I didn’t. I stand accused. I was wrong.’
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity