President Barack Obama described Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first Black elected president, as “the last great liberator of the 20th century” and thanked the grieving nation for sharing their beloved former leader with the rest of the world.
Speaking Tuesday at a rain-soaked memorial service here attended by nearly 100 current and former international leaders, Obama said, “It is a singular honor to be with you today, to celebrate a life like no other. To the people of South Africa, people of every race and walk of life – the world thanks you for sharing Nelson Mandela with us. His struggle was your struggle. His triumph was your triumph. Your dignity and your hope found expression in his life. And your freedom, your democracy is his cherished legacy.”
Mandela died last Thursday at the age of 95 after a long illness. The memorial service kicked off a week of celebrations that will culminate Sunday with his burial in his ancestral village of Qunu, in the Eastern Cape region. Flags are flying throughout the country at half-staff.
Coincidentally, the memorial service fell on United Nations Human Rights Day. Obama used the occasion to deliver stern words to leaders who repress their own people yet profess to admire Mandela, whom Obama mostly referred to as Madiba, the former president’s Xhosa tribal name.
“There are too many people who happily embrace Madiba’s legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality,” President Obama said. “There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people. And there are too many of us on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard.”
Like many U.S. civil rights leaders, Obama drew a parallel between Mandela’s struggle for majority rule in South Africa and African-Americans’ struggle to overcome slavery and Jim Crow laws that treated Blacks as second-class citizens.
“We know that, like South Africa, the United States had to overcome centuries of racial subjugation. As was true here, it took sacrifice – the sacrifice of countless people, known and unknown, to see the dawn of a new day. Michelle and I are beneficiaries of that struggle,” Obama said to applause. “But in America, and in South Africa, and in countries all around the globe, we cannot allow our progress to cloud the fact that our work is not yet done.”
Mandela, a former amateur boxer, gave his last public speech in the soccer stadium where the tribute was held. Fittingly, the stadium is located in Soweto, a township were Blacks were forced to live under apartheid and where Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu have homes.
Accompanying Obama on Air Force One were former president George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter arrived in South Africa on separate aircrafts.
Like many international gatherings, journalists observe every detail, including whether adversaries shake hands.
Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro shook hands but, White House officials were quick to note that it amounted to nothing more than an exchange of pleasantries.
“Nothing was planned in terms of the president’s role other than his remarks,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters traveling with Obama. “He really didn’t do more than exchange greetings with those leaders on his way to speak, it wasn’t a substantive discussion.”
The fact that Obama and Castro were at the same event demonstrated the breath of Mandela’s impact on their world.
“He was more than one of the greatest leaders of our time. He was one of our greatest teachers,” U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told those in attendance. “His baobab tree has left deep roots that reach across the planet.”
Following in the footsteps of Mandela is a tough act to follow, as South African President Jacob Zuma has already discovered. He and the ruling ANC Party are unpopular because of a poor economy and record economic inequality. When Zuma rose to give the keynote speech Tuesday, he was widely booed. Some gave the thumbs down sign or rolled their wrists, a soccer gesture for substitution.
“There is no one like Madiba. He was one of a kind,” Zuma said, as the booing subsided. “Mandela believed in collective leadership. He never wanted to be viewed as a messiah or a saint. He recognized that all of his achievements were a result of working with the A.N.C. collective.”
President Obama relayed how Mandela’s fight for freedom impacted him personally.
“Over 30 years ago, while still a student, I learned of Mandela and the struggles in this land. It stirred something in me. It woke me up to my responsibilities – to others, and to myself – and set me on an improbable journey that finds me here today. And while I will always fall short of Madiba’s example, he makes me want to be better. He speaks to what is best inside us.”
Gen. Thanduxolo Mandela, a relative who offered one of the eulogies, said: “I am sure Madiba is smiling from above as he looks down at the multitude of diversity gathered here, for this is what he strove for – the equality of man, the brotherhood of humanity.”