Obama pays homage to 'great soul' of Mandela

US President Barack Obama (right) offers his condolences to Nelson Mandela's wife, Graça Machel. (AFP)

US President Barack Obama (right) offers his condolences to Nelson Mandela's wife, Graça Machel. (AFP)

If there was any doubt that Nelson Mandela was a world leader, Tuesday's memorial service wiped away all hesitation.

Presidents of the world paid moving tributes to Mandela, the founding president of democratic South Africa, who passed away last Thursday, aged 95.

US President Barack Obama, who visited South Africa in June but could not see Madiba who was in hospital, said he was honoured to be part of the crowd that celebrated Mandela’s life.

Obama described Mandela as a "great soul" and thanked South Africans for sharing him with the world.

"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 was one of presidents who received a warm reception from the crowd and received cheers throughout his speech, particularly when he compared Mandela to freedom fighters such as Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi.

"Born during World War I, far from the corridors of power, a boy raised herding cattle and tutored by elders of his Thembu tribe – Madiba would emerge as the last great liberator of the 20th century. 

"Like Gandhi, he would lead a resistance movement – a movement that at its start held little prospect of success.
Like King, he would give potent voice to the claims of the oppressed, and the moral necessity of racial justice."

'Giant of history'
Obama said he found it hard to eulogise "a giant of history, who moved a nation toward justice, and in the process moved billions around the world". 

It was tempting to remember Mandela as an icon, smiling and serene, detached from the tawdry affairs of lesser men, Obama said.

"But Madiba himself strongly resisted such a lifeless portrait. Instead, he insisted on sharing with us his doubts and fears; his miscalculations along with his victories. "I'm not a saint," he said, "unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying."

"It was precisely because he could admit to imperfection – because he could be so full of good humour, even mischief, despite the heavy burdens he carried – that we loved him so. He was not a bust made of marble; he was a man of flesh and blood – a son and husband, a father and a friend. That is why we learned so much from him; that is why we can learn from him still."

The American president said although Mandela admitted to have inherited "a proud rebelliousness, a stubborn sense of fairness" from his father, he "disciplined his anger".

"Like other early giants of the ANC – the Sisulus and Tambos – Madiba channelled his desire to fight into organisation, platforms, and strategies for action, so men and women could stand-up for their dignity."

Mandela quoted
Mourners went wild when Obama quoted Mandela's famous speech when he stood trial during apartheid in 1964, a case that sent him to jail for 27 years: "I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I've cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

Obama praised Mandela for not only embodying Ubuntu, but teaching millions to find truth within themselves. 

"We remember the gestures, large and small – introducing his jailers as honoured guests at his inauguration; taking the pitch in a Springbok uniform; turning his family's heartbreak into a call to confront Aids – that revealed the depth of his empathy and understanding," Obama said.

He urged South Africans to use Mandela's death as a time for self-reflection.

"With honesty, regardless of our station or circumstance, we must ask:  how well have I applied his lessons in my own life?"

Obama also challenged South Africans and citizens of the world to do good like Mandela by acting on behalf of peace and justice.

"There are too many of us who happily embrace Madiba’s legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality. 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 who stand on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard."

Though Mandela is no more, his ideals should not die with him, Obama said.

"We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again. But young people of Africa and young people around the world – you can make his life's work your own. After this great liberator is laid to rest; when we have returned to our cities and villages, and rejoined our daily routines, let us search then for his strength – for his largeness of spirit – somewhere inside ourselves."

Obama arrived in South Africa on Tuesday morning with his two predecessors, George W Bush and Bill Clinton. 

Mmanaledi Mataboge

Mmanaledi Mataboge

Mmanaledi Mataboge is the Mail & Guardian's political editor. Raised in a rural village, she later studied journalism in a township where she fell in love with the medium of radio. This former radio presenter and producer previously worked as a senior politics reporter for the Mail & Guardian, and writes on politics, government, and anything that gives the disadvantaged, poor, and the oppressed a voice. Read more from Mmanaledi Mataboge

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