Former US president Barack Obama has proved the most popular of speakers that the Nelson Mandela Foundation has invited to deliver the Mandela lecture, with 15 000 people expected to attend in Johannesburg on Tuesday.
The largest audience so far to attend the lecture was 4 000-stong, when former US president Bill Clinton presented it.
The Mandela Foundation’s chief executive, Sello Hatang, said they were forced to change venues three times before settling on the Wanderers Stadium.
Initially, the Nasrec Expo Hall was chosen, then the Standard Bank arena, which was also deemed too small.
Hatang said that immediately after they announced Obama as the speaker, there were 7 000 expressions of interest to attend.
Obama is a known admirer of the South African icon, whom he credits with inspiring his activism.
Last year his tweet quoting Mandela became one of the most popular of all time with 1.6 million retweets and 4.5 million likes.
The quote, which starts with: “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin or his background or his religion ...” was tweeted at a time when the US was grappling with racially charged clashes in Charlottesville after white supremacists gathered to protest against plans to remove the statue of the Confederate general Robert E Lee.
Obama also spoke at Mandela’s funeral in 2013.
Hatang said Obama was expected to share lessons in how to build an active citizenry and to help reinvigorate Madiba’s legacy.
“He is someone who cared about our liberation struggle. His excitement about our freedom was such that our victory was ours as much as it was his. The moment of Obama’s election [as US president] was a moment of pride for Madiba as well and he even penned a letter to him,” Hatang said.
South Africa’s younger generation has been questioning the new dispensation negotiated by the ANC leadership under Mandela for its failure to transfer economic power to the people, while seizing political power.
“You would agree with me that these days we find ourselves in a moment where Madiba’s legacy is under question. You begin to ask: Is there something that we are missing? Maybe we need people from outside who can say, ‘from my vantage point, this is how I understood Madiba and this is how I think we can continue to celebrate his legacy’,” said Hatang.
The Mandela Foundation has been running the lecture for 16 years and previous speakers include former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former SA president Thabo Mbeki, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former Irish president and philanthropist Mary Robinson. Hatang said it did not take much persuasion to convince Obama, who was more than willing to honour his mentor.
He said the foundation planned lectures two to three years in advance and did not always choose “popular” speakers.
“The board applies its mind to the next lecture immediately after the last one. We almost know at the end of the one lecture how we should theme the next one. There is a committee that sits immediately and does that work. So it determines the speaker based on what is at issue at the moment in the world. Each speaker has his or her own traction. But by numbers, this is the biggest.”
He cited the example of French economist professor Thomas Piketty who delivered a critique of capitalism, only to be followed by US mogul Bill Gates the following year.
“It’s not about who we like but what we are trying to address in a particular moment and the audience that we are talking to.”
Hatang said all local news networks will carry the event live on TV. International networks, including BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera and Chinese TV have confirmed their attendance.
He said they were humbled that Obama, who has kept relatively silent since leaving office, had chosen to speak here.
“You can’t disregard that this is a special moment and there are people flying in from other countries just for this. Scholars, students and ordinary people will also be here to do their 67 minutes of service for Mandela,” he said.
Obama has not published his itinerary, but it is expected that he will host other events while in the country. Hatang was not worried about the logistics, saying “we have hosted sitting presidents before, so we are used to dealing with complicated arrangements”.