Barack Obama delivers passionate defense of equality in Nelson Mandela Lecture

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Barack Obama has used his first high-profile speech since stepping down as US President to say the world should resist cynicism over the rise of strongmen, in an apparent reference to populist leaders who hold power in a number of countries.

Obama speaks to Nelson Mandela's widow Graca Machel during the memorial service for the former South African president at the FNB Stadium in Soweto near Johannesburg on December 10, 2013.

July 18 marks 100 years since the birth of the late former president in 1918. Speaking to a crowd of 15,000 people at a Johannesburg cricket stadium to mark what would have been Nelson Mandela's 100th birthday, Obama recounted human progress over the last century, lauding the advancements that have been made on social, racial, and economic issues in America and overseas.

He said when the United Nations contacted Mandela informing him about declaring a day in his honour, in his gracious way, he turned it down but advised that instead of celebrating him, people should spend the time doing something that will make another person's life better.

Tuesday's lecture was preceded by a panel discussion that featured former President Sirleaf, Kofi Annan and the former Foreign Affairs Minister of Algeria, Lakhdar Brahimi at the Obama Foundation gathering of young African leaders.

He added: "I am not being alarmist, I am merely stating the facts. Unchecked greed and selfishness will kill our handsome globe unless we turn to the values that these people spent their lives trying to teach us", the South African High Commissioner said.

These days "we see much of the world threatening to return to a more risky, more brutal way of business", Obama said.

Barack Obama
Obama to make rare high-profile speech on Mandela's legacy

While not mentioning Trump by name, Obama's speech countered numerous USA president's policies, calling on people to keep alive the ideas that Mandela worked for, including democracy, diversity and tolerance.

Events have been planned throughout the year for the 100th anniversary of his birth, including a large concert in December in South Africa that will be headlined by Beyonce and Jay-Z and hosted by Oprah Winfrey and others. "We see the utter loss of shame among political leaders where they're caught in a lie, and they just double-down, and they lie some more".

"It is because of the failure of the world order that we see the whole world trying to go back to the old more brutal way of doing business".

"Let me tell you what I believe".

"For this of us who care about the legacy we honor here today, we stand on the shoulders who came before, they know it's now their turn to do the work", he said. He died in 2013 at the age of 95.

He rallied people to keep alive the ideals that the anti-apartheid activist worked for as the first black president of South Africa, including democracy, diversity, gender equality and tolerance.

Imprisoned for almost three decades for his fight against state-sanctioned racial segregation, he was freed in 1990 and quickly set about working to unite the nation through forgiveness and reconciliation, becoming South Africa's first black president.

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