President Barack Obama shakes hands with Cuban President Raul Castro at a memorial for Mandela in Johannesburg on Tuesday, an unprecedented gesture between the leaders of two nations that have been at loggerheads with each other. (Reuters)
Soweto, Dec. 10: President Barack Obama travelled halfway around the world today to deliver a message he hoped would be heard by his political opponents back home, and some US rivals abroad and in the audience.
Obama’s speech at a rain-soaked soccer stadium in Johannesburg was perhaps the most electrifying moment of a day of remembrances about the life of Nelson Mandela, who died last Thursday at age 95.
Obama hailed Mandela as a “giant of justice” and “the last great liberator of the 20th century” and seemed to criticise despots around the world.
“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,” Obama said, using Mandela’s clan name.
Obama’s brief trip to South Africa offered a respite from partisan battles in Washington over spending and, more recently, the botched rollout of his signature healthcare plan.
Throughout his speech, Obama sprinkled references to his determination to work to reduce income inequality in the US. His appeal to people who embrace Mandela’s life mission to actually live by it may have been directed towards his Republican opponents, who have sought to stymie his agenda on many fronts. Obama also preached a broader message at the Mandela memorial.
Delivered before both Cuban President Raul Castro and Chinese Vice-President Li Yuanchao, his remarks could easily be construed as being directed at their governments and others with whom the US has differences over human rights.
“Around the world today, men and women are still in prison for their political beliefs and are still persecuted for what they look like and how they worship and who they love. That is happening today,” he said. “There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people.”
Huge cheers greeted Obama as he rose to offer a eulogy that blended a personal message with a broader appeal for Mandela’s values to survive him.
In an outpouring of praise, remembrance and celebration, scores of leaders from around the world joined tens of thousands of South Africans in a vast, rain-swept soccer stadium to pay common tribute to Mandela, whose struggle against apartheid inspired his own country and many far beyond its borders.
South Africans, swathed in their national colours, some wearing wraparounds bearing Mandela’s portrait, celebrated their former President as both an inspiration and an inherited memory for those raised in the post-apartheid era.
“To the people of South Africa — people of every race and every walk of life — the world thanks you for sharing Nelson Mandela with us,” President Obama said. “His struggle was your struggle. His triumph was your triumph. Your dignity and hope found expression in his life, and your freedom, your democracy, is his cherished legacy.”
Obama added: “Born during World War I, far from the corridors of power, a boy raised herding cattle and tutored by the elders of his Thembu tribe, Madiba would emerge as the last great liberator of the 20th century.”
The US President then referred to Mahatma Gandhi. “Like Gandhi, he would lead a resistance movement — a movement that at its start had little prospect for success. Like Dr King, he would give potent voice to the claims of the oppressed and the moral necessity of racial justice.
“He would endure a brutal imprisonment that began in the time of Kennedy and Khrushchev, and reached the final days of the Cold War. Emerging from prison, without the force of arms, he would — like Abraham Lincoln — hold his country together when it threatened to break apart. And like America’s Founding Fathers, he would erect a constitutional order to preserve freedom for future generations — a commitment to democracy and rule of law ratified not only by his election, but by his willingness to step down from power after only one term.”
Sheets of driving rain swept across this former segregated township — an urban sprawl within sight of the glittery highrises of downtown Johannesburg — keeping some mourners away from the 95,000-capacity FNB Stadium where Mandela made his last public appearance during the soccer World Cup in 2010. The stadium was far from full as the start of the memorial approached.
“Even heaven is crying,” one woman in the crowd declared as the deluge continued. “We have lost an angel.”
For those tens of thousands who entered the stadium, the memorial service, part of a 10-day period of national mourning since Mandela died, was a moment that fused revolutionary memories of the fight against apartheid with appeals for the values of forgiveness and reconciliation. Songs of the struggle, as the anti-apartheid campaign is known, blended with hymns and prayer.
Some stomped their feet as young protesters did during the years of protest that led to Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 after 27 years of incarceration.
“It is hard to eulogise any man — to capture in words not just the facts and the dates that make a life, but the essential truth of a person — their private joys and sorrows; the quiet moments and unique qualities that illuminate someone’s soul,” Obama said. “How much harder to do so for a giant of history, who moved a nation toward justice, and in the process moved billions around the world.”
Striking a deeply personal note, Obama said: “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 a better man. He speaks to what is best inside us.”
The memorial service came 20 years to the day after Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, South Africa’s last white President, who negotiated the demise of Afrikaner power, travelled together to Oslo to receive a shared Nobel Peace Prize. De Klerk was among the dignitaries at the stadium today.
The ceremony drew an enormous array of global VIPs, including at least 91 heads of state and government, celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and the singer Bono, as well as royalty.
The period of official mourning is scheduled to continue this week, with Mandela’s body lying in state for three days in Pretoria, and a state funeral on Sunday in his remote boyhood village of Qunu in the Eastern Cape region.
Shortly before the scheduled start, the stadium was roughly half full, with most people taking shelter in the highest areas under the roof. Many made long journeys, by bus and by train, to reach the stadium. Others gave up waiting for buses that they said never came and instead began the long slog to the stadium.