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Of Madiba, Obama and living Martin Luther King Jr’s dream

By By OYUNGA PALA | December 16th 2013


KENYA: Madiba’s funeral was always going to be a media circus. For the last decade, every time Mandela sneezed, the world held out a pressed handkerchief. If the obsessive detail of Mandela’s health over the last months was anything to go by, the funeral was set to be the global media event of the year. When Mandela died, the world literally stopped and reflected on the life of an individual whose magnanimity touched the globe in a manner comparable perhaps only to Bob Marley’s musical legacy.

Nearly a 100 world leaders showed up for the memorial service last week united by grief, a gathering that is rarely seen outside of a UN General Assembly summit. This was the might of Mandela’s personality.


Anyone seeking a lesson in compassion and resilience would find plenty of inspiration from Mandela’s life story. It is a story of triumph against impossible odds that reads like a fable. It was inevitable that Mandela would become a victim of a personality cult, imprisoned by his own legacy.  And towards the end of his life reduced to a living golden bust that offered a treasured photo opportunity for throngs of admirers. Madiba spent his life reminding people of his vulnerability, by laying bare his flaws, accepting his mistakes but the world always lifted him up to the status of a demi god. He was transformed into something like we had never experienced, a mythological character that rarely existed outside the movies. To crown it all, he was African.

But as Mandela’s memorial service was ongoing, it was the sub plot that was making the news.

The notable victim of this cult of personality was Barrack Obama whose every minute movement came under scrutiny. Obama seems to be caught up in the same media circus as the undisputed world leader of his generation.

The reception he received at Madiba’s memorial in Soweto was like a crowning ceremony of the heir apparent, an embodiment of the next ‘One’ in world of black consciousness.

That kind of demi-god status does not leave room for goofy earthly tendencies. Nothing illustrates Obama’s glided cage better than the backlash he received after his selfie made rounds on social media.


The selfie was taken by Danish Prime minister Helle Thorning Schmidt with British PM David Cameron squeezing in to make three a crowd. It become a trending topic nearly overshadowing the memorial event and generated heated discussion. Many compared Obama’s selfie moment to a narcissistic teenage behaviour that was out of place at a funeral.

Obama and Michelle’s body language was studied, interpreted and story lines were created. Obama was also castigated for shaking hands with Raul Castro of Cuba the perennial enemy of the US state.


It reminds me of the first time Mandela was seen walking through a park holding hands with Graca Machel, widow of former Mozambique leader Samora Machel.

He was accused of inappropriate behavior, setting a bad example to the kids and almost dismissed for falling in love at an age when we are supposed to have resigned to senility. Then there was the acknowledgement of Gaddaffi, Arafat , Castro that the western media criticised. Madiba had to remind everyone that no one could choose his friends on his behalf.

The destiny of Obama and Mandela seemed intertwined in history.

Today the world’s most recognised personalities are two black political leaders, celebrated for their characters and who have dramatically changed the arc of African consciousness. Folks, we are living in King’s  dream.

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