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A Comparison of Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama's Inaugural Addresses

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In Barack Obama’s and Nelson Mandela’s inaugural addresses, both leaders use symbolism, imagery, and repetition to convey a sense of hope and purpose to their people. Leaders need the support of their fellow citizens to accomplish change. A president’s inaugural address must show their country that things will change for the better and steps will be taken to put plans into action. Colorful language helps Mandela and Obama to get their messages of improvement and country-wide prosperity across. Allusion, metaphor, and parallel structure, as well as symbolism, imagery, and repetition are used to help keep their audiences interested.

Mandela’s speech is chock-full of symbolism. He constantly refers to the earth, the soil, of South Africa. Early on in his address, Mandela says,
“...I have no hesitation in saying that each one of us is as intimately attached to the soil of this beautiful country as are the famous jacaranda trees...”
By referring frequently to the soil, Mandela reminds South Africans that they are all on common ground – that they each only want happiness and prosperity. In reminding his people of the country and the land they share, Mandela seeks to emphasize South Africa’s unity and the need for peaceful co-existence. As South Africa was previously a place of extreme segregation, it is important that Mandela stresses unity as his country rebuilds itself.
In his speech, Obama uses gathering clouds and raging storms to symbolize the challenges that America faces now, and the problems that will soon flood the Obama administration.
“[The presidential oath has] been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms.”
His use of water in the symbolism is significant because water use and conservation is one of the problems the world is facing at the moment. Water is vital to all life forms, and it is being polluted and contaminated. Obama’s use of water to symbolize the climate at the various inaugurations is, in fact, symbolic.

Right at the start of Mandela’s speech, he uses imagery to announce what has to be done.
“Our daily deeds as ordinary South Africans must produce an actual South African reality that will reinforce humanity’s belief in justice, strengthen its confidence in the nobility of the human soul and sustain all our hopes for a glorious life for all.”
Once again, Mandela stresses the importance of unity and equality by adding that all should hope for everyone’s glory and prosperity. He also uses imagery to help engage his audience’s minds. One can really see the clear image of individual pieces building up to amount to a new South African greatness. This section of Mandela’s address really inspires both hope and purpose by revealing the importance of each South African’s daily action and by showing what South Africa could become.

To further emphasize unity and purpose, two main themes from his speech, Mandela states,
“…we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”
This section of Mandela’s address gives South Africans something to hope for; a common goal, and is another example of imagery as well.
Obama doesn’t use imagery as frequently as Mandela does, but he does use it to his advantage.
“Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin the work of remaking America.”
This creates a visual image that helps Obama’s audience to connect with his message of purpose. Obama very clearly conveys hope and purpose in his speech.
“…we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.”
Imagery is used very effectively here – one can see hope and unity of purpose rising and pushing fear, conflict, and discord down.

Besides hope and purpose, renewal and revival are recurring themes in Obama’s address. He frequently mentions America’s founding fathers and commemorates war veterans. Obama wants his fellow citizens to appreciate what their ancestors did in the past to allow us to have such a prosperous America today. He wants the US to acknowledge all the hard work immigrants and soldiers did, and for the US to take advantage of our resources by using them to build a better America. Obama wants to keep old values while using new and improved ways to fight new problems, and he shows this through imagery.
“Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end…and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.”
In his inaugural address, Mandela uses repetition to show the importance and weight of his ideas.
“Let there be justice for all. Let there be peace for all. Let there be work, bread, water, and salt for all.”
Once more, Mandela instills a feeling of hope in his people, all the while continuing to express South Africa’s need for equality and unity.
Obama uses repetition similarly. He uses repetition to stress, specifically, what our ancestors did for us; for the future.
“For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life. For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the west; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth. For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn.”
This is also an excellent example of Obama’s use of allusion to reach his audience.
Obama uses allusion repeatedly in his address and Mandela uses it too, but in a more sparing fashion. At the beginning of his speech, Obama states,
“…we the people have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears, and true to our founding documents.”
This statement is full of allusions to the Preamble of the Constitution, the founding fathers, such as George Washington, and other people and documents from the beginning of America as an independent nation. Mandela most blatantly uses allusion in the phrase, “Let freedom reign.” This is an allusion to Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream Speech, in which King says, “Let freedom ring.”
Although Mandela and Obama primarily use imagery and symbolism to keep their audiences interested and inspired, they also use metaphors for the same purpose. Mandela uses one especially rich metaphor towards the end of his speech.
“...never again shall it be that this beautiful land will…suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world.”
South Africa being the ‘skunk of the world’ is significant because as well as representing something bad, nasty and undesirable, skunks are mostly black with one white stripe. This represents South Africa’s apartheid system where a few wealthy white citizens ruled over a black majority. A good example of metaphor from Obama’s speech is when he is talking about America’s “patchwork heritage”. America is not literally a patchwork of cultures; Obama is using this metaphor to describe America’s diversity.
Parallel structure is used throughout Mandela’s and Obama’s inaugural addresses; adding emphasis to the theme of equality.
“We must therefore act together as a united people, for national reconciliation, for nation building, for the birth of a new world.”
This phrase from Mandela’s speech is also an example of repetition. Obama’s speech has a lot of parallel structure, too, perhaps even more than Mandela’s speech has.
“We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.”

Both inaugural addresses were given following times when hope and purpose were not so commonly found. Helped along by literary devices, both leaders gave inspiring inaugural addresses that touched listeners around the world.



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