Barack Obama said on Tuesday the world should resist cynicism over the rise of strongmen, an apparent reference to populist leaders in power in a number of countries.
The Democrat former US president did not name his Republican successor, Donald Trump, but the speech was among the most pointed comments he made about politics since leaving office in January 2017.
“Just as people spoke about the triumph of democracy in the 90s, people now are talking about the triumph of tribalism and the strong man. We need to resist that cynicism,” Obama said in Johannesburg to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Nelson Mandela.
Some of Obama’s language echoed Trump critics.
“Too much of politics today seems to reject the concept of objective truth. People make stuff up. We see it in the growth of state-sponsored propaganda, we see it in internet-driven fabrication, in the blurring of lines between news and entertainment,” Obama said.
“We see the utter loss of shame among political leaders, where they are caught in a lie and they just double down and lie some more,” he said.
Obama said there were far-right parties in the West with platforms of protectionism and closed borders but also a “barely hidden racial nationalism”.
Since leaving the White House, Obama has largely avoided direct involvement in US politics and refrained from criticising Trump. Some Democrats say he should play a more direct role.
On Monday Trump sided with Russian President Vladimir Putin over alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election, casting doubt on the findings of US intelligence agencies and sparking a storm of criticism.
During his speech, given in a stadium to thousands of politicians, businesspeople and students, Obama lauded Mandela’s life of sacrifice and commitment to social justice.
Mandela, a giant of the struggle against apartheid who served as South Africa’s president from 1994 to 1999, died in 2013 aged 95.
Obama, who visited Kenya earlier this week, praised South Africa’s current president, Cyril Ramaphosa, saying he instilled “new hope” among South Africans.